It's a typical Wednesday night at home for Patty Preiss and her three kids, Anthony, Stephanie and the youngest, 9-year-old Elizabeth Olten.
"She was going to be in a play at school, so she was practicing her lines and doing her little songs and irritating her brother, and I was getting ready to cook dinner," said Patty.
There's a knock at the door. It's a 6-year-old girl who lives across the woods.
"She had asked if Elizabeth could go play, and originally I told her no because I was getting ready to make dinner, and both girls were hopping up and down and begging, wanting to go play, and I was like 'OK, you can go for an hour,'" said Patty. "She had to be home by 6."
It's October 21, 2009 and the sun sets at 6:30 p.m. Patty knows her daughter Elizabeth will be back and on time for dinner because she's deathly afraid of the dark. And the deep, dense woods that separate their homes turn into a scary place once night falls.
But at 6 o'clock, Elizabeth hadn't made it home. Immediately Patty calls her neighbor's home. They tell Patty Elizabeth is not there.
"I just knew it wasn't right," said Patty. "They left together and the grandmother was telling me she was never there. That's when I called police."
The Cole County Sheriff's Department is on scene in just 15 minutes. Sheriff's deputies and Patty head over to the last-known place Elizabeth was going, her neighbor's house.
"Everybody said she wasn't there. So then they started doing a search," said Patty. "The fire department, local officers, and by 10 o'clock there was hundreds of people looking for her."
Teams of concerned residents and local law enforcement agencies form a grid search around Patty's and her neighbor's houses. But Wednesday night is slipping away and there's still no sign of Elizabeth.
"They kept telling me there's no signs of foul play," said Patty. "It's like, she didn't just vanish -- she's 9 years old."
Patty knows Elizabeth has her cellphone with her and she's been calling it non-stop since her daughter disappeared, but the calls are going to voicemail.
Investigators contact the cellphone company and order what is called an "emergency ping" -- basically, signals generated from the phone to the nearest cell tower. The data is collected and used to zero in on the precise location of a cellphone. And sheriff's deputies start receiving pings from Elizabeth's cellphone.
"The pings from the phone all were located in the general area of the woods," said Missouri State Highway Patrol Sgt. David Rice (Ret.). "It was a large wooded area behind the house, but it's thick forest ground and it was a lot of area to cover."
They're going to need backup.
"It was the following day in which my unit, my investigative unit became involved and was contacted to assist in the search," said Rice. "I believed she was still in the area."
A missing-persons report is sent out to neighboring law enforcement agencies and the FBI.
"We did a search of the woods of the area, we had checkpoints set up all around the area for everyone driving into and out of the area," said Rice. "We tracked down all the local registered sex offenders. We had planes in the air, helicopters, dog teams, dive teams for the ponds and rivers. Everything that we could do at the time, we were trying to locate her."
It's Thursday afternoon and almost 24 hours since anyone has seen 9-year-old Elizabeth Olten. Sgt. Rice turns his attention back to the last person to see Elizabeth: the 6-year-old little girl and neighbor who knocked on the door to see if she could play. Her name is Emma, and she lives just a few houses down from Elizabeth.
"Emma was interviewed by the FBI and Emma simply stated she was playing with her friend Elizabeth, and about an hour later Elizabeth started walking home and that was the last she saw of her," said Rice.
"She [Emma] was outside playing with Elizabeth and shortly after that became stuck in some thorn bushes and was crying and screaming for help, was crying for her sister, saying 'Alyssa, come help me,'" said Rice.
Alyssa Bustamante, Emma's 15-year-old half-sister. The rest of the siblings include Emma's 11-year-old twin half-brothers. All four kids live with their grandmother and legal guardian, Karen Brooke. Often the Bustamante and Olten children could be found playing at each other's homes.
During the time Elizabeth went missing, all the neighbor kids are accounted for except for Alyssa Bustamante.
"She admitted that she skipped school that day," said retired Sgt. Rice. "She was aware law enforcement couldn't find this girl, but stated she knew nothing about it whatsoever."
During initial questioning, cops find Alyssa's behavior seemingly calm and forthcoming.
"She was not, should not be considered a suspect," said Mark Richardson, Prosecuting Attorney, Cole County, Missouri.
As searchers canvass the woods behind the Bustamante home, local volunteers stumble across something in the back woods.
"Appeared to them to look like a grave in the woods, and that's when my investigative unit became primarily involved in it," said Rice. "We were called and asked to process the scene for the possibility that Elizabeth was in that hole, was in that grave."
Sergeant Rice and his forensics team process the potential crime scene.
"We had been out there for several hours," said Rice. "It was during that time the FBI had been interviewing Alyssa initially and they brought her to the scene, and I remember watching two FBI agents I know walk a young girl over to the scene."
That's when the sergeant overhears something odd.
"I heard Alyssa say she dug the hole, and of course my response to that was, Why did you dig the hole? And Alyssa said 'I just like digging holes,' and would bury dead animals when she found them," said Rice.
"No one was in that shallow grave," said Mark Richardson, Prosecuting Attorney, Cole County, Missouri.
Time is ticking on this missing-persons case now nearing the 48-hour mark. Sergeant Rice is suspicious of this empty hole. He notes it is the perfect size for a small child, just like Elizabeth.
Simultaneously, back at Alyssa Bustamante's home,
"The FBI obtained consent to search the Bustamante home and one of their evidence officers was assigned to search Alyssa Bustamante's room," said Richardson.
When the agent opens the teenage girl's bedroom door, it's a spine-chilling sight.
"She found several things in that room to be disturbing," said Richardson.
The walls are covered with bizarre writings, some of in pen while others, it appears, are in blood. In one corner of the room, there is a poem about "cutting," which is a form of self-injury usually involving a knife or razorblade.
Alyssa's best friend, Jennifer, knew about her high school friend's sadistic secret.
"I actually consulted one of our friends, and he talked to her about it," said Jennifer Meyer, who used to be friends with Alyssa. "We noticed a lot of scars on her wrists. She talked about suicide a lot. I know that she had attempted it a couple times."
On another wall there's a crude sketch of a person. The head and arm appear to have slice- and slash-style markings. A closer look and there's a name near the deranged depiction: "Emma" -- Alyssa's younger sister.
There are also cards and letters taped to Alyssa's bedroom wall from a Ceasar Bustamante. The return address: Prison.
"Her father was in prison," said former friend Jennifer Meyer. "He had gotten into some kind of physical altercation, and her mother was on drugs a lot. She was in and out of her life."
The FBI agent spots something else in Alyssa's bedroom.
"A diary in the room, a journal," said Mark Richardson.
And when the investigator starts to read Alyssa's diary, the words jump off the page for all the wrong reasons.
"Disturbing things that referred to burning down a house and killing the people in it," said Richardson. "And then she noticed the last entry of the journal had a date of Wednesday, October 21st."
The very same day Elizabeth disappeared.
"It appeared to be marked over in blue ink, a blue ink pen obliterating over what was written, except the last part of it said 'Now I've got to go to church lol,'" said Richardson.
The agent collects the diary as potential evidence.
The next morning, Friday, two days since Elizabeth went missing, Alyssa is brought to the FBI headquarters for an interview with Sergeant David Rice.
"In combination with her strange behavior, I was confident that we were going into an interrogation at some point," said Rice.
Just before he goes in, Rice is handed Alyssa's diary.
"The last entry of the diary, which was the day that Elizabeth went missing, was completely scratched out," said Rice. "Using back-lighting we could make out two words."
"'Slit' and 'throat,'" said Mark Richardson.
Alyssa Bustamante, her grandmother, Sgt. Rice and a juvenile officer file into the interrogation room.
"Silence is a very effective during an interview or interrogation because people feel very uncomfortable in silence," said Rice. "There were pauses I believe that were up to 45 seconds to a minute long, and you could see the stress affecting Alyssa. You could see her eyes begin to tremor and her head begin to shake."
Right when Rice thinks she might break, he tells Alyssa they have her diary.
"'We have your diary, and we've read your diary. Even the last entry which was scribbled out' -- and I just waited," Rice tells Crime Watch Daily.
The effect is immediate.
"Once I brought up the diary I could see a distinct shift in her demeanor, and I think it was at that point she knew that we knew," said Rice.
Alyssa finally starts to reveal what happened to Elizabeth. She tells Sgt. Rice it was an accident. She said they were walking in the woods when Elizabeth fell, hit her head and suddenly died.
"I explained to Alyssa that we were going to recover the body and the autopsy would show every injury," said Rice.
Rice asks the 15-year-old girl a direct and damning question.
"'Was her throat cut?'" said Rice. "And Alyssa said 'Yes,' and that's when the grandmother broke down and began crying."
It's a huge break in the case. Alyssa's grandmother leaves the room and the 15-year-old comes clean.
"She said she sent Emma, her sister, over to the Olten household to pick Elizabeth up," said Rice. "From that point she claimed that she told Emma to go back home and that she took Elizabeth by the hand and walked her into the woods."
It's a quarter of a mile, a 15-minute walk into the woods, leaving plenty of time for Alyssa Bustamante to think about what she is doing and stop. But she continues on, holding the 9-year-old's hand, saying:
"'I've got something really neat to show you. It's just a little bit further up here,'" Rice says, quoting Alyssa.
Unbeknownst to the little girl, Alyssa is armed with a kitchen knife and is leading her toward a pre-dug grave.
"Alyssa said once she arrived at the site of the hole that she began to strangle Elizabeth while she was facing her, that she strangled her multiple times and stabbed her in the chest, I believe six or seven times, and then cut her throat," said Rice.
After her confession, Alyssa agrees to take Sgt. Rice to Elizabeth's body. Rice took Crime Watch Daily along into the same woods, where he retraced and recalled that fateful day.
"She knew exactly where it was, led us directly to it," said Rice. "It was not well-covered. Once she pointed out the area, and you looked a little bit closer, you could see that she was only a few inches, if that, under the ground, and you could see body parts that came up covered with mud. It's a pretty horrifying homicide."
The results of Elizabeth's autopsy come in and they appear to mirror Alyssa's diabolical diary entry. Investigators use a blue light to finally reveal her last entry on the day Elizabeth disappeared. It reads in part:
"I just [----] killed someone. I strangled them and slit their throat and stabbed them... it was ahmazing... it's pretty enjoyable... I gotta go to church now... lol." -- Oct. 21, 2009
"This was very premeditated by the 15-year-old murderer because she had dug the grave holes at least five days in advance of the murder, and it was premeditated in the sense that she sent her sister down to get Elizabeth out of the house for the purpose of murdering her," said prosecutor Mark Richardson.
A premeditated and planned murder meets the legal requirements for a first-degree murder case. But what about her age? Alyssa is just 15.
"She was certified to stand trial as an adult, and the Cole County grand jury heard evidence in the case and returned an indictment of two counts of murder in the first degree and armed criminal action," said Mark Richardson.
Sadly, the signs of a troubled teen seemed to be there all along. Alyssa appeared to like hurting herself and others. On her Youtube page Alyssa lists under interests and hobbies: "killing people" and "cutting." And in one video captured on a school bus, she threatens to shoot a classmate.
A week before she killed Elizabeth, Alyssa takes to her journal and writes: "If I don't talk about it, I bottle it up, and when I explode someone's gonna die."
But perhaps the biggest warning sign appears at Alyssa's own 15th birthday party. She is hanging out with her former best friend Jennifer when she says:
"'I just wonder what it would be like just to kill someone, see the life just drain out of someone. I wonder what it would feel like, that type of power, to take that away from someone,'" reports Jennifer Meyer.
"That is one of the most reprehensible motives for murder that exists in humankind, and that is to murder a person for the thrill of murdering them," said Richardson.
Two years and four months after the fateful events that rocked the rural town of St. Martins, Missouri. A trial date is finally set. Then the prosecution gets an unexpected setback. The defense filed a motion to suppress Alyssa's confession. Alyssa's defense team claims because she was juvenile some of the questions asked during her interrogation weren't allowed under Missouri law. The judge agrees and Alyssa's confession is thrown out.
"Having the confession suppressed was a huge blow," said David Rice. "This was a clear first-degree murder case."
And there's another big blow to the prosecution's case on the horizon: The U.S. Supreme Court is about to likely rule that life sentences without the possibility of parole for juveniles is unconstitutional. So prosecutors offer up a plea deal to the defense: An amendment to murder in the second degree with a range of 10 to 30 years or life imprisonment with the chance of parole.
"I notified the mother and the family that that's what I had determined to do," said prosecuting attorney Richardson.
"I was mad. I was very mad," said Patty Preiss, Elizabeth's mother.
Alyssa Bustamante's defense team accepts the plea deal. During the sentencing phase, she addresses her victim's family and states:
"I cannot even understand what you guys are going through. I'm sorry for that. If I could give my life to bring her back, I would, and I'm sorry."
"I don't think she can be sorry," said Stephanie Adrian, Elizabeth's sister. "I don't believe anything that she says."
"She was being fed what to say to us from her attorney, so none of it was real," said Patty.
Alyssa Bustamante was sentenced on the murder charge to life in prison with the chance of parole, plus 30 years for armed criminal action. Under Missouri law, she will serve 35 years and five months before she will be eligible for parole. Even her one-time best friend wonders now if that's enough.
"I don't think there is anywhere that she should be besides prison, ever, because you just can't get away with something like that," said Jennifer Meyer.
What would Stephanie Adrian, Elizabeth's sister, say to Alyssa?
"That I hate her, that she's ruined everyone in my family's life," said Stephanie.
"She changed everybody's life so drastically. It's not fair. She shouldn't be sitting in prison, she should die too," said Patty Preiss. "I don't care how old she was. Age didn't have anything to do with it. There's no rehabilitation for her."
Following Alyssa's conviction, Elizabeth's mother filed a wrongful-death lawsuit against Alyssa Bustamante's grandparents and siblings. She was awarded $400,000 in a settlement. She's also sued Alyssa herself to ensure that the killer teen cannot profit from her crime: no books, no movies, nothing.
UPDATE July 25, 2017:
Patricia Preiss agreed to settle a wrongful death lawsuit that requires the imprisoned killer to pay her more than $5 million, the Springfield News-Leader reports. Preiss signed a deal to settle the lawsuit she filed against Alyssa Bustamante. Under the lawsuit settlement, Preiss agreed to dismiss any remaining counts. Bustamante also is required to notify Preiss if she receives any compensation arising from publicity about the case.