MITT’S RUNAWAY TALE
A favorite story among Mitt Romney’s backers for establishing his cred as both a good guy and a man of action concerns the time he helped find a business partner’s missing teenage daughter.
The story is spellbinding and there’s no debate that Romney’s quick and resolute action helped locate the girl — but The Daily has learned that her life was never in danger, as many retellings have suggested.
The 14-year-old disappeared for several days after attending a rave in New York City and was reunited with her family after she was found staying with some new friends in northern New Jersey. But versions of the 1996 incident told by Romney’s campaigns and news reports have often carried the implication that he saved the girl’s life.
The Romney campaign declined to comment for this story.
Earlier this year, an ad called “Saved” featured the girl’s father crediting Romney with helping “save” his daughter. And press coverage of the disappearance during Romney’s run for Massachusetts governor a decade ago described the teen as near death.
But several acquaintances of the teen who knew her well at the time and have not spoken publicly before told The Daily a different story: one of a rebellious adolescent in a moment of high-spirited escapism who hid from her parents in relative safety in an upscale New Jersey town.
And they credited the group of new friends she made during her disappearance, including a boyfriend, as the ones who ultimately encouraged Melissa Gay — daughter of Romney’s colleague at private equity firm Bain Capital — to head home to her panicked family.
“Did Mitt Romney ‘save’ this girl? No,” said Doug Becker, the then-boyfriend and now a 32-year-old pastor in the same town of Rockaway, N.J. “But I do think what spurred her going home was the kind of coverage it was getting, and I think [Romney] was pretty responsible for that.”
Romney was head of Boston-based Bain Capital in July 1996 when he received a frantic call from Robert Gay, a senior partner at the firm. Melissa was missing and had last been seen in New York City. Romney shut down operations at Bain and set up a command center at a New York Marriott to find the teenager.
More than 200 bankers from Boston and New York took to the streets, passing out fliers in some of New York’s toughest neighborhoods. Days later, Melissa turned up safe at the home of Becker’s parents in suburban New Jersey.
Since 2002, in the early years of Romney’s entrance into public life, three of his campaigns — one gubernatorial and two presidential — have floated the story to demonstrate his crisis management skills and, more importantly, his human side. But each time the basic facts have become more blurred.
During his 2002 gubernatorial bid, for example, a Boston Globe profile of Romney described Melissa as near death, found in Montauk, N.Y., where she was “shivering through detox after a massive dose of ecstasy.” Robert Gay had been told by doctors, according to the story, that his daughter “might not have lived another day.”
Other more recent news stories have even claimed that Melissa was kidnapped. She wasn’t.
The source of these details is unclear, but the spirit of these tellings — that Romney’s know-how rescued a teen who was just hours away from death — has gone uncorrected and unchallenged.
In 2007, in Romney’s first bid for the presidency, his campaign ran a TV ad by the name of “Searched.” In the 30-second spot, sirens wail as newspaper clippings dissolve into ominous skyscraper images and Robert Gay tearfully speaks.
“Mitt’s done a lot of things that are nearly impossible, but for me the most important thing he’s ever done was to help save my daughter,” Gay told prospective voters.
Earlier this year, the pro-Romney PAC “Restore Our Future” ran the spot again under the title “Saved.”
Kate Flynn, a childhood friend of Melissa’s, said Gay asked to come home on her own accord. She said the teenager paged the beeper of a hometown friend in Connecticut and asked for someone to come collect her.
“I saw the ad and that’s not what happened,” Flynn told The Daily. “Mitt Romney did help with the search. But from everything that Missy told us, she’s the one who made the contact to call home.”
Flynn said that while the ad was “exaggerated,” Melissa’s disappearance was legitimately terrifying. “We were all frantic,” she said.
Another childhood friend, speaking anonymously, was more blunt. “I think the ad is incredibly misleading. Dishonest is the word for it,” the friend said. “She wasn’t saved, she ran away to go to a rave, and got lost and wound up in New Jersey. She paged a friend to come get her.”
The childhood friend, who said she has not spoken to Gay in years, said the political ad has been the subject of derision among some graduates of their former high school in Danbury, Conn. “Many of us have put the ad up on our Facebook profiles to say, ‘Seriously?’ That’s not how we remember it. Even the headline of ‘Saved,’ it’s a bit much.”
Of course, for Romney’s business partner and his wife, the ordeal was the stuff of every parent’s nightmare: Their young daughter was lost, alone somewhere after disappearing in New York City. The Gays feared the worst. One of the teens who took her to the rave told police he had given her several hits of ecstasy and last saw her partying under the Whitestone Bridge, according to news accounts from the time.
A close relative who asked not to be identified because Melissa Gay requested that the family not speak publicly about the story said Romney made the difference in bringing her home.
“Without Mitt’s help, it wouldn’t have happened,” the family member told The Daily, adding that the incident was traumatic for the Gays, a family with seven children. “It was pretty scary at the time. All of us as teenagers have had our moments, but that one gave everyone the run for their money.”
Gay’s parents did not respond to requests for comment, though Lynette Gay spoke briefly to The Associated Press last month.
“That was a long time ago and she’s gotten on with her life,” she said.
Personal stories told in the political arena can often take on a kind of mythical air, said John Geer, an expert in campaign ads.
“The story becomes bigger than life,” Geer said in a telephone interview from Nashville, Tenn., where he chairs the political science department at Vanderbilt University. “It can happen on both sides of the aisle.”
Romney, according to Geer, will have to become more comfortable speaking about his personal life to connect with voters.
“The real issue is that Romney has this positive aspect to his personality that hasn’t been talked about very much because of the way he appears on the trail,” Geer said. “The public wants to know more about that, not that they necessarily want to have a beer with Romney, but they want a sense that he’s a good person.”
Melissa’s story began on a Saturday night in July 1996, when the 14-year-old told her parents she was playing tennis at a country club near their home in affluent Ridgefield, Conn.
Instead, Melissa ditched the racquet to meet up with a group of older teens she knew. They headed to the big city to party and attend a rave called Fantasia II on New York’s Randalls Island.
Becker said he and his group befriended the Connecticut stray, spent the week with her in Montville Township, N.J., and even helped line up a job for her at a telemarketing call center in nearby Pinebrook, N.J., just in case she wanted to stay. By all accounts, the teen won a large number of friends in Montville in a short time.
A few days later, Becker said he and friend Caroline Mok caught wind of the unusual search party looking for a missing teenage girl.
“We were eating at Subway, and we heard about it and Missy hadn’t,” Becker said. “Caroline was like, ‘You tell her,’ and Missy said, ‘Tell me what?’ and Caroline said, ‘You’re in the news.’”
Reality set in. “I kind of remember the look on Missy’s face and it was almost like, ‘This figures.’ ”
The teens decided Becker would drive Gay home the next morning. “I was elected as the one to do that,” he said. “I was closest to her and we wanted to be together one last day.”
But later that night, as Gay and 17-year-old Becker sneaked into an upstairs room at his parents’ house in Towaco, N.J., to listen to music, the police arrived. A youth from the area had called a tip line inquiring about a reward, then quickly hung up; police had traced the call back to New Jersey.
Becker’s mom was stunned as Doug admitted Melissa was there.
Gay’s parents sent her away for a month to be reformed, Becker said. “She was sent to some kind of camp for troubled youth,” he said.
Becker said he and Gay maintained a “fairly close relationship for at least a year,” but eventually lost touch.
The Daily went to the home of Melissa Gay Lewis in Danbury, Conn., where she is a fourth-grade teacher and lives with her husband and young children just a couple miles from the Ridgefield house she once ran away from. She refused to comment.
In 2008, Lewis and her husband each donated $2,300 to Romney’s presidential run. So far, they haven’t donated to Romney’s second White House bid.