John and Johanna Gladden lived every parent's nightmare.
Their teen-age daughter carried on a secret sexual relationship with a man nearly twice her age. Despite their drastic steps to end the relationship once it was revealed, the girl was murdered at the man's hands.
Now, two days after the 30-year-old Baltimore man was convicted of the girl's 1993 murder, the Columbia couple hope other parents can learn from their story.
"Nobody should ever have to go through this," Mrs. Gladden said.
Yesterday, the Gladdens said they first blamed themselves for the death of their 15-year-old daughter, Tara Allison Gladden, thinking they should have been more aware or acted more quickly.
But the Gladdens said they now believe they did all they could. "You can be so cautious, but what is out there is much bigger than us as parents," Mrs. Gladden said.
Married for 19 years, the Gladdens had a family like many others. Mrs. Gladden, 39, is an executive secretary. Mr. Gladden, 42, is a regional manager for a chain of shoe stores.
"It was basically a happy, all-American type family," he said.
Mrs. Gladden recalled how her son, Shawn, and Tara were close but "totally opposite." He was three years older, outgoing and popular; Tara was shy and insecure.
"I was protective of her," Mrs. Gladden said. "I didn't push her to be independent. Maybe now that was not the best thing."
The Gladdens first heard about "C. J.," Curtis Jamison, in August 1992. Tara had told a friend that her boyfriend was a drug dealer in Baltimore. When word got back to Mrs. Gladden, she went to Tara, who said she had made up the story.
"That closed the book," Mrs. Gladden said. "It was too unbelieveable."
But the name C. J. came up again in the spring of 1993.
After a fight with her parents, Tara left the house. The Gladdens called some of their daughter's friends, looking for her. One gave them a telephone number for C. J.
When Tara came home, the Gladdens confronted her. She told them that C. J. was her 18-year-old boyfriend from Silver Spring. They had only seen each other a few times, but they talked on the telephone daily. They were in love.
The Gladdens were wary about the age difference, but they invited C. J. to their house to celebrate Father's Day in June 1993. He didn't show.
"If this guy loved Tara like she loved him, why wouldn't he meet her parents?" Mrs. Gladden asked.
The Gladdens began noticing changes in Tara. She talked on the telephone constantly, often answering it on the first ring. She rarely left the house. She seldom saw her friends, not even her best friend, a 13-year-old neighbor.
They thought Tara might have been involved in drugs, so they checked her room and looked into her eyes -- but they found no evidence of drug use.
Mrs. Gladden said she began to believe that C. J. was at the heart of Tara's troubles.
In June 1993, the Gladdens sent Tara to visit relatives in California for three weeks. While she was away, the Gladdens learned that their daughter was involved with Curtis Aden Jamison.
They discovered the 28-year-old Baltimore man had been charged with having a sexual relationship with a teen-age girl. He was never prosecuted for that case.
The Gladdens also learned Jamison was sexually involved with Tara's 13-year-old friend.
On July 16, 1993, Tara came home from California. Her parents told her Jamison's age. She was devastated and ready to take her story to the police.
The Gladdens said they noticed a change in their daughter that night -- she seemed relieved. They stayed up until 2 a.m., with Tara talking nonstop about her relationship with Jamison.
The Gladdens learned that when Shawn went away to college in August 1992, Jamison started coming to their house after Tara would come home from school and would leave before they got home.
Wanting to make sure Tara's ties to Jamison were severed, the Gladdens changed their telephone number and didn't tell Tara. They changed the code on their home's alarm system, so Tara couldn't leave without setting it off. While they were at work, they had relatives stay with Tara for the next five days.
On the sixth day, July 22, 1993 -- the only day Tara was left alone -- she disappeared.
For much of the next month, the Gladdens led a frantic search for their daughter. "That was absolutely the worst time in my life," Mrs. Gladden said.
But still the Gladdens didn't really consider the possibility that Tara was dead. On Aug. 16, 1993 -- what would have been Tara's 16th birthday -- her mother made a strawberry shortcake, thinking Tara would come home. The cake remains in their freezer.
The next day, Aug. 17, the Gladdens learned a police search team had found a nude, decomposed body in a culvert under Columbia's Little Patuxent Parkway.
The next day, the body was identified as Tara's.
The Gladdens focused on making sure Jamison was punished for his actions. Tuesday, 27 months after Tara's death, Jamison was convicted of first-degree murder. He could be sentenced to life in prison without parole on Nov. 21.
Now that justice has been served, the Gladdens aren't sure how they will move on. But they know that memories of their daughter will always be part of their lives.
Their new home in Columbia's Long Reach village is decorated with pictures of Tara and some of her belongings. They have two dogs, Tag -- Tara's initials -- and Toot, a variation of Tara's nickname.
There are still many difficult times, such as driving near the Little Patuxent Parkway culvert and seeing Tara's friends and wondering what their daughter would be like now.
Mrs. Gladden urged other parents to take an active role in their children's lives, no matter how strict they have to be.
"Parents really have to evaluate the situation when they feel something is wrong," she said. "You want to believe your children but you really have to go with what you're feeling.
"I thought we had a perfect little family, but it didn't turn out that way."
Today, the Gladdens plan to go to Tara's grave in Timonium.