America. After the Pony Express, the railways were perhaps the most significant single thing that helped shape our young nation into the force that it would quickly become. In those dawning days, long before jet planes and the internet were but mere afterthoughts, it was the rails that stitched together our country’s rolling hills, sprawling flatlands, snow-capped mountains and sweltering deserts. The rails revolutionised travel and aided the rise of an Industrial Age that, pro or con, saw America become arguably the mightiest superpower in recorded history. Indeed, these were mighty days for a mighty land, when the unadventurous had no recourse but to get the hell out of the way, shut up and sit down, while pioneers and forefathers carved their names in stone and steel, building the United States of America brick-by-brick on blood, sweat, tears and guts…and maybe a little back-stabbing, double-dealing, glad-handing and bullying too, but hey, in matters of history the end usually justified the means. And so, as Rome also taught us, in the fruit of this brave new world lay also the seeds of its ruin. One glance at the American landscape of 2012 reveals a sad state of affairs and some glaringly inescapable truths. Environmental pollution, government corruption, corporate greed, dwindling education resources, healthcare in crisis, skyrocketing street crime, rampant domestic abuse, and a frighteningly apathetic consumer culture that seems content to let the once-great American dream swirl right down the drain, so long as it can get an ironic tee and viral video out of it to cash in 15 minutes of internet fame. Morality, spirit, soul, and basic truth are all late to the finish line when there’s a fast buck to be made. Just the way it is. Well, iFeel sick, how about you?
The scariest monsters are the real ones
Here in the land of the free, the home of the brave, the post-everything wild west, the good guys don’t always win. Sometimes bad things happen to good people. And sometimes the purest among us aren’t even given a chance. 8-year-old Annette Bright certainly didn’t deserve what happened to her, but when we lay out all we know, the wheels of her fate were set in motion years before she would meet Charles Koschalk. Indeed, years before she was even born. Anything but the facts and records is heresy, but the facts are easy to find and the chronology easy to follow. It ain’t pretty, so if such things linger in your psyche to disturb and haunt for longer than is tolerable, you should read no further. To tell this story is to tell it all, and to flinch in the task would be the greatest disservice to a life taken way too soon. Annette Bright would’ve been eighteen today. But in 2012, she exists only as a photograph, a memory, a campfire story and a cautionary tale. It’s a testament to the idea that our scariest monsters are the real ones, and that sometimes the very people assigned to protect and nurture a child are the ones who feed it to the wolves, and for no good reason. As if there could ever be a reason, or even an explanation, for a thing so evil. No opinion will ever matter or make it better or bring her back, so we’ll stick to the facts because they’re all we need. This story has only one hero and she’s long dead. Her saga begins with a guy who reportedly wasn’t exercising much good judgment in his life.
In 1989, John Bright was enlisted in the U.S. Navy and serving in California, along with his wife Annette, their infant daughter Marcia, and another unnamed daughter from another woman. Acting on complaints of abuse, child services removed both children from the Bright home after John confessed to getting too physical with a belt. It was the first time authorities would take kids off John Bright, but it wouldn’t be the last. The older girl from his previous relationship never returned, which leads us to believe she’d been the one suffering the brunt of the violence, and baby Marcia’s life probably would’ve been much different if she’d remained in the system, but she didn’t – likely due to child welfare’s predilection for keeping kids with their biological mother at any cost. Marcia was returned to the Brights, but things only grew darker as the years passed. In 1993, the couple gave birth to another daughter, Annette, named after mom. Just a year later, a boy entered the mix, this time named after dad. Between 1992 and 1996, San Diego child welfare services logged at least 15 separate abuse complaints against the Brights. Law prohibits the agency from revealing details. Once freed from Naval duty, John Bright took his circus cross-country to Pennsylvania, all the way to – you guessed it – my hometown of Monessen, just south of Pittsburgh. I was long gone – ironically living in California – and I never knew the Brights existed, although it’s entirely possible we passed each other on the road sometime back in the 90s. What is it about the area I hail from that breeds such doom, gloom, madness & destruction? Not sure, but I have my theories. The steel industry that employed so many immigrant settlers and early generation families in Pennsylvania began a rapid decline in the 80s, eventually dying as a career option and leaving many who regarded milling as their inherited way of life with nothing but the breadline and memories of better times. The somewhat isolated suburban river towns were hit particularly hard. With enough time to fester, that type of resentment can instil a kind of wholesale inherited depression. From there, just follow the blood drops. Alcoholism, drug abuse, domestic violence, burglaries, assaults, the list goes on. None of it’s good. All of it looms large in the crime statistics of Western Pennsylvania. Just a thought. Of course, the crime we’re talking about here is worse than all the above put together.
Charles Koschalk had a penchant for underage girls
At some point in the family’s Pennsylvania tenure, John Bright exercised his highly suspect judgment by befriending a thirty-something local labourer named Charles Koschalk. The two became fast friends. Viewing the addresses, I can’t help but notice Koschalk resided a mere stones throw downhill from the house in which I grew up. Had I ever crossed paths with this nut-job as a kid? I can’t recall, but if I did, it’s doubtful anything notable would’ve occurred. Koschalk – skinny, skeevy, cock-eyed, and uneducated – had a penchant for underage girls. Or maybe just one underage girl in particular. In what can only be seen as a huge blow to morality everywhere, he would get the girl. For a little while anyway. After reportedly lavishing the Brights with a myriad of gifts, including a ‘new’ used car, Koschalk succeeded in winning the affections of John’s eldest daughter, 9-year-old Marcia Bright. What I mean to say is that, by all indications, the Brights began accepting gifts from their new paedophilic friend in exchange for their silence as he molested their pre-pubescent daughter. Or, to put it bluntly, John Bright pimped his daughter for shiny things and beer. If, when, or how much Marcia resisted her pre-arranged suitor is unclear. Maybe she dreaded every second in his presence. Maybe she’d been raised so skewed to that point that she didn’t immediately recognise how wrong things were. This arrangement would go on unabated for the next three years, until she was 12. The fact that seemingly everyone within eyeshot regarded the Bright girl drama as common knowledge doesn’t shine a kind light on the locals, but to lend them the benefit of doubt, what do you do? What can you do when they carry on like everything’s normal? Well, to answer for the townsfolk, you gossip. But while everyone was busy sniffing their neighbour’s dirty laundry, things were rapidly worsening in the Bright home.
The straw that broke the camel’s back and alerted state authorities to the situation was the night Charles Koschalk broke the unwritten rule and kept Marcia out until the next morning. Cosy in the cab of his truck, in a wooded clearing, just the two of them with no meddling parents. Not that he’d been encountering much resistance at the house. The message, it seemed, was clear. Come bearing gifts, we’ll look the other way. But spirit the girl away and leave us with nothing, we’ll call the cops. Which is exactly what John Bright did that morning, but only after Koschalk phoned to announce he had Marcia. Koschalk was arrested and charged with corrupting the morals of a minor, receiving a 23-month prison sentence that was reduced to 9 months with time served. Sounds like somebody cut the paedo a break, eh? He was also ordered to have no contact with children, including Marcia Bright. So, following his release in 2001, he did what any sane person would do. He went straight back to the Brights. Inexplicably, John Bright ignored the court’s restraining order and welcomed his old friend back with open arms. Almost immediately, they were drinking and yukking it up on the front porch. The gift giving resumed as well, as did the generous alone time with then-12-year-old Marcia. She even began communicating with Koschalk via a secret pager he gave her, as well as a walkie-talkie, according to the girl’s uncle, who’d been watching horrified from afar. Walkies? That’s some militaresque statutory love right there – and some creepy foreshadowing. Believe it or not, some were still wondering if the relationship between 34-year-old Charles Koschalk and 12-year-old Marcia Bright was sexual. Common sense says yes, but what really nails the coffin is Marcia’s on-the-record admission that she’d had ongoing sexual relations with Koschalk from 1998 to July 15, 2001. That, and the 26 counts of statutory rape prosecutors were set to drop on him when this nightmarish journey screeched to its inevitable conclusion a short while later.
The system fell short and Annette Bright paid the price
The end played out in fast succession, beginning with Koschalk’s probation officer spotting him at a Greensburg shopping mall with Marcia, the very girl he was legally ordered to avoid. The system fell short starting right here, but so did every other single person involved and for some damnable reason, 8-year-old Annette Bright ended up paying the price. Timeline. Koschalk was seen violating his probation on May 4, but it wasn’t until June 18 – 6 weeks later – that the probation department issued their report on his activities. And they put as much emphasis on his unpaid $185 civil fine as they did his accompanying the minor in question. Priorities in order, eh? The county needed its beer money, apparently, but the laziness doesn’t stop there. It would be another whole week before the District Attorney filed the petition to return Koschalk to prison for his transgression. At that point, almost two months had passed. For another full three weeks, a lot went on between Charles Koschalk & Marcia Bright. We’ll cover what is known, though much more is sealed in the prosecutor’s records. At some point, the girl refused to continue the relationship and that’s when Koschalk snapped. Judge William Ober had it in his authority to pull Charles Koschalk off the streets at any time, merely by looking at the petition he’d been given, but maybe there was a game on or he’d gotten a lash in his eye or something. By July 2001, Ober had yet to even schedule a hearing on the matter. Zzzzzzzzzzzz… Thanks, judge. I’m sure your retirement fund is secure, and I’m sure there’s a special place in hell for your special kind of incompetence.
July 15, 2001: 8-year-old Annette Bright vanishes. After 13 hours, her family finally reports her missing.
July 16-17: Search teams of local and state police scour the area, including the rivers, for any signs of Annette. Charles Koschalk is one of the ground volunteers, sticking close to the Brights the entire time. John Bright offers this sage gem for the news cameras that have gathered en masse: “I think she’s been kidnapped, and no kidnapper is going to let her live.” Quite the contrast to most parents of missing children who get TV time to voice their message, right? If not for the existence of Charles Koschalk, this fool would’ve been number one by a mile. Number one suspect, that is. The FBI comes in, after the police chief states, “our expertise is not missing juveniles.” Succinct, chief. Not long ago, one of this town’s officers was attacked and mauled by his own K-9 partner during a domestic disturbance. Hell, I’m not sure what their expertise is. Where were we? Ah, yes. Cue the Psych theme music, because along with the FBI comes a crime scene psychic. This is where things get interesting. Koschalk, apparently cool as a cucumber alongside family & police when helping search the town for the girl, instantly begins sweating bullets when the psychic breezes in. He’d been at the top of the suspect list the whole time, of course, just barely edging out father John on the potential scumbag scale. They were just giving him a long leash and watching his behaviour from afar. As everyone knows, shady hillbillies may hate the Man, but they fear the Mojo. Once the psychic starts reviewing and refuting evidence – Annette’s bicycle found on the other side of town, for instance – Koschalk crumbles like a house of cards.
July 18: And on the third day under FBI questioning, Charles Koschalk confesses to killing Annette Bright. In his words, he saw the 8-year-old riding her bike and thought it’d be fun to take her deer hunting, so they went home to get his shotgun, then drove to the woods. As they squatted in the bush, his leg began to cramp. Standing up to shake it off, the gun discharged and he accidentally shot the girl in the face. Frightened by his error, he buried the body and decided to forget the whole thing. He leads investigators to the body and is formally charged with criminal homicide. Annette is found in a shallow grave near a stretch of train tracks on the outskirts of town. Shot once in the chin with a 20-gauge shotgun, she’s identified by her clothing. Tests reveal traces of Koschalk’s semen on Annette’s body, which lead to rumblings that he’d forced her to perform oral sex before shooting her in the mouth in a misguided effort to erase the evidence.
Later, police searched Koschalk’s home and removed four guns, two shovels, and over a dozen bags for lab analysis as possible trial evidence. As for the murder weapon, he claimed to have cut it up and disposed of the pieces in multiple trashcans and the Monongahela River. It was never recovered. In a perfect world, things like this wouldn’t happen. But our world’s far from perfect. Maybe the least those involved can hope for from this type of tragedy is how not to live and what not to do. Or maybe, just maybe, a little grace. The Bright family, however, would attain neither. Perhaps they just couldn’t. Perhaps they’d been bumping the ceiling of their moral means already, either too rotten or too stupid to do any better. Whatever the excuse, John Bright used nearly five thousand dollars of money donated to his daughter’s burial fund to go shopping and buy things, including a new car. He was arrested, of course. Just another in a long string of really abysmal life choices. And he had an excuse. The car he’d been using was registered to Charles Koschalk, he said, and he needed to provide for his family, because a man provides, right? I can’t help but think – if family really was a concern for this guy – that a little girl wouldn’t have been dug out of a shallow grave down by the train tracks with half her head destroyed by a shotgun blast. Another little girl wouldn’t have been fed to the foster system in 1989, having suffered untold abuses up to then. Still another girl wouldn’t have to enter her teenage years having essentially been dealt as a sex slave by her own parents, before herself following that older half-sister into foster care. And a little boy wouldn’t have to glean what it means to be a man from two of the fucking worst examples we could ever hold up to the light, before hopefully meeting a real role model and re-learning the rules from scratch.
Charles Koschalk took the easy way out. No, he didn’t kill himself. That would’ve been a little too easy. Better to let him live with what he did. Besides, prison’s not kind to paedos, the guy’s plankton. In the lead-up to what was looking like a circus of a murder trial, state prosecutors made a slam dunk discovery – an underground bunker dug into the hillside behind Koschalk’s house that contained incriminating evidence of Marcia’s long-term molestation, as well as handwritten letters that threatened her and her family, should she ever attempt to stop seeing him. “You better hope they catch me before I kill you or your family,” one note read. “I love you to death and will not let you go. I love you forever and ever.” Before going to trial, wherein his defence would’ve pushed for the accidental shooting sentence, he voluntarily pled guilty to first degree premeditated murder and received a life sentence without the possibility of parole. Armed with the bunker’s evidence, the prosecution had been planning two trials. One for murder with special circumstances for the semen evidence, one for 26 counts of statutory rape. That’s what influenced his decision to suddenly plead guilty, and though he claimed his desire to spare Marcia the pain of a public trial, he told police he feared going into prison as a convicted rapist. At his sentencing, Koschalk addressed the court. “Life is hard to replace. Sorry. I hope God forgives me.” Me. Notice it’s about him there, but Annette Bright is simply referred to as life. Nice deflection, Chuck. They play dodgeball in C yard, I hear. Watch out for shanks.
In August 2001, a few weeks after Annette’s murder, the remaining Bright children, John, 7, and Marcia, 12, were removed from John Bright’s custody by the state. Today, their names are changed, their whereabouts unknown. Marcia is 23, John is 18. Hopefully, they’ve found some happiness and have grown into good people. I’d like to be optimistic and think so. They deserve it. So do we. There’s enough pain and bullshit in the world and everything we do has a ripple effect. Six months after the kids were taken, Annette Bright, 41, filed a restraining order against John, asking that he be permanently barred from the family home. In the complaint, she details sordid abuses committed against her and the kids over the years, including the charge that John had recently pinned her to the floor for over an hour and threatened to kill her. Given the trajectory of the guy’s life, it’s hard to doubt her claims, but some of her wording is chilling. “John tried to use the belt on my kids, but I took the beating for them,” she writes. Notice how she assigns the cause of the trouble to the kids there. I took it for them. What a mom. It’s a classic victim-as-enabler trait, but it doesn’t excuse the fact that she played a big part in paving the way for what happened, too. That type of attitude and sheer refusal to see things for what they are is what sets the stage for things to snowball so horribly, as they did here. Let’s be good to each other, people. Let’s just be good. Turn off the computer and go hug someone you love, like I’m about to. That’s enough horror for one day. It’s enough for a lifetime. Let’s resolve to keep it on the page, on the stage, and on the screen. For the kids out there that have to live the nightmares for real. They’re all around us, but heroes are sometimes in short supply. Check back next month, Horror of Babylon will lighten it up a bit and do something fun. That’s a promise. ‘Til then, be safe.