NEWTON — When the door swung open at Rowe's Corner Market store on March 22, 1980, owner Peter Jewett was pleased to see one of his favorite young customers, a slender teenage girl named Rachael Garden, step into the quiet store.

Unlike many of the sullen teenagers who patronized the store, 15-year-old Rachel was memorable for her outgoing personality and ready smile; the type of kid who always took the time to say "Hi."

Rachael handed Jewett a $5 bill for a pack of cigarettes and headed out the door. Twenty-seven years later, Jewett, who now owns a general store in East Kingston, still remembers his last glimpse of Rachael. "I turned and leaned against the counter like I always did to look at the road and I saw Rachael walking toward Maple Avenue," he said.

Sometime that Saturday night Rachael, a petite ninth-grader at Sanborn Regional High School, disappeared from the streets of Newton, and was never seen again.

For most Newton residents the next morning was just an ordinary Sunday in March. There was a lingering chill of winter in the air and the ground was damp from recent rains and winter's melting snows. Jimmy Carter was president and Pink Floyd's "Another Brick in the Wall" was on top of the music charts.

With a population barely over 3,000 people, Newton had only one full-time police officer. It was the kind of town where bad things just didn't happen.

Rachael's parents called the police station at about 10 a.m. on Sunday to report their oldest child missing. Rachael's mother, who has since moved away and expresses reluctance to talk about the case, says only that she knew right away something was seriously wrong when Rachael did not return to the family's small cape on Main Street.

What the police did and who they talked to in those first 24 hours Rachael disappeared is known only to them. But by Monday morning, Rachael was still missing.

Vic Daley, a vice principal at the high school, remembers taking a call from Rachael's mother the Monday after she disappeared. "She only said that Rachael would be absent. I didn't know that something was wrong till maybe a few days later."

Daley says he doesn't remember if the police ever came to the school. "I don't think so, but it's possible."

That Rachael was considered a runaway in those first few months seems evident from the lack of publicity her disappearance generated. There were no posters or fliers. No announcements were made at school. Friends were not questioned until months or even years later. At school, her desk sat empty and no one really asked why.

There were reasons to believe Rachael might have left home on her own accord. She was a teenager after all, a girl who adored her siblings but sometimes resented having to baby-sit for them so often. A girl who complained to friends about feeling stifled by her parents' rules. She was drawn to the more rebellious of her peers, the kind who skipped school or smoked and drank in the woods near Martin's Pond.

In her free time, Rachael often walked the quarter-mile down to Rowe's Corner Market, looking for some excitement. Sometimes she went to the hill across from Maple Avenue, a place where local teens often congregated.

One friend recalls that Rachael even talked of running away around the time she disappeared.

And then there were the alleged sightings in the months that followed her disappearance, sightings that spurred Rachael's mother to rush down to Haverhill, Mass. or over to Hampton Beach looking for clues.

But others say Rachael would not leave her family or town voluntarily. "She was too young and naïve to do something like that," said one friend.

The day she disappeared, Rachael was reportedly wearing a two-tone blue ski parka, jeans and a plaid shirt with silver threads. She had on brown lace-up shoes and carried a dark blue tote bag with the word "Things" imprinted on one side. Police believe Rachael left all of her belongings at home, including her dental retainer. She reportedly had a horse she loved and would never have left unattended.

While police questioned witnesses and followed leads, time passed. Summer came and went, but still there was no sign of Rachael.

As 1980 came to a close, it seemed that Rachael was already forgotten by many in town. Her classmates, now in their sophomore year, assumed she had dropped out or moved away.

Life in town went on as usual. At the close of 1980, the police of chief wrote a summary of his department's year in the town report. Two arrests for littering were noted. A police cruiser was stolen and there was a burglary at the Rolla Round Skating Rink. Over the course of the year, the police station received 11 reports of missing persons. Who went missing and whether they were ever found is not recorded. There is no mention of Rachael Garden.

Darker theories emerge
Soon, however, darker theories began to emerge about Rachael's disappearance.

At least two witnesses report seeing Rachael talking to three young men in a dark car in the vicinity of Rowe's Market and Maple Avenue. Rachael was known to have associated with the young men before, despite their troubled reputation.

"Those guys were bad news," say one witness, a longtime Newton resident who declined to be identified. When asked if he thinks they were involved in Rachael's disappearance, he doesn't hesitate. "Definitely," he says.

In the years ahead, all three would have run-ins with the law, and at least one eventually served time for assault and rape.

Then there was the story of an alleged confession by one of the men, spilled out at a smoky bar in Haverhill and sending police on a futile search for Rachael's grave beside a stone wall and stream off Route 108.

Were one or all of the young men seen with Rachael that night involved in her disappearance? Or were they just easy targets because of their rebellious, troubled ways? Did Rachael run away and start a new life? Did she met a tragic death in her own town by someone she knew or in some other place by a stranger's hand?

A thick file bearing Rachael's name sits in a drawer of the town's new police station, but for years the case has been technically under the purview of the state police in Concord.

State Police Detective Joel Estabrook states he can say little about the case because it remains open.

"Every once in awhile we get a call or some kind of lead," said Estabrook. Estabrook says he does not believe Rachael ran away, but declined to confirm reports that the state police had dug up certain areas throughout town in search of her body.

Drawing attention to Rachael's disappearance beyond the confines of Newton was no easy task in 1980. There was no Amber Alert in place. The nation's only federally recognized clearinghouse for information on child abduction cases would not exist for another four years.

"You have to remember that it was a very small police department back then," said one former Newton officer. "The police chief had died unexpectedly and there was an interim chief in place. There weren't the systems in place like there are now when kids disappear."

By many accounts, police did all they could to find Rachael in the months and years that followed. Volunteer firemen and the Boys Scouts scoured the woods near Maple and Highland avenues. A helicopter flew over Newton's woods, swamps and fields. Dogs were brought in to follow scents. Witnesses were questioned, and the family even consulted a psychic, who reportedly pointed police to an area off Maple Avenue.

Where Rachael was supposed to be the Saturday night she disappeared is unclear. Information posted on missing persons Web sites state Rachael had planned to stay overnight at friend's house just down the street from her own house on Main Street. Today, that friend says that was never the plan. "I didn't know she was coming over and I never saw her." 

The friend said that she baby-sat that Saturday and then went out to a movie.

The friend eventually moved away to Nantucket, Mass. and recalls that two detectives once went to the island to question her. "I really had no information," she said.

Rachael would have graduated from Sanborn in 1983. The yearbook for her class contains a page titled "Gone But Not Forgotten" which lists the photos and names of classmates who moved or dropped out before graduation.

One former classmate remembers a discussion about mentioning Rachael somewhere in the yearbook, but in the end, she was not included.

After graduating from high school, Rachael's friends and classmates went to work or to college. They married and had children. Some still have roots in Newton, but for others, those years represent another lifetime.

Although housing developments have sprouted up over the decades, Newton hasn't changed much since Rachael went missing the night of March 22, 1980.

Rowe's Market is still the place to buy a gallon milk or grab a quick sandwich. The Gale Library is still on Main Street. At the police station, a small economical building not far from where Rachael was last seen, pictures of fathers wanted for unpaid child support are tacked on the lobby bulletin board. There is no picture of Rachael.

Newton still conducts official business in the steepled Town Hall, where the town's history is preserved in the form of tax records, zoning maps, board minutes and town reports. It's a place where employees are often privy to the latest news as well as the stories and secrets of years gone by.

But now it is 2007, and no one there remembers the young girl who disappeared from Newton 27 years ago. The girl who lived just down the street. The one with large brown eyes named Rachael.

If you have any information about this case, contact the Rockingham County Sheriff's Office Missing Persons Unit 603-679-2225. Anonymous tips are accepted.