All posts by reneelroberson

The Absurd Alligator Story: An Update on the Disappearance of Mike Williams

When I first heard about the disappearance of Florida resident Mike Williams on “Disappeared” a few years ago, I couldn’t help but hear the alarm bells go off in my head. Nothing in the story felt right with me.

Williams, a 31-year-old real estate appraiser, went missing on Dec. 16, 2000 after his wife told police he had failed to return from an early-morning duck hunting trip on Lake Seminole. It was his wedding anniversary, and he and wife Denise were supposed to have dinner plans that night. His truck was found at the lake, and his fishing boat was found in the water, but there was no sign of Mike. Upon an initial search, authorities believe Williams fell into the water and drowned, and was possibly eaten by an alligator.

Here’s the thing that made me pause. His wife didn’t seem to be sad that he went missing. In fact, even though Mike was her high-school sweetheart, after the birth of their daughter a rift grew between Mike and Denise and Mike’s family. They reported that Denise didn’t seem to be interested in maintaining a relationship with them. Mike tried to keep the peace by taking their toddler to visit his family, often without Denise. After Mike’s boat and truck were found, Denise seemed ready to move on with her life and presume Mike dead. Mike’s best friend Brian Winchester was often by Denise’s side, consoling her and trying to explain to the police his theory about how Mike died.

Mike’s mother Cheryl, however, was not so quick to presume her son was gone. She consulted with experts at Florida State University who theorized alligators would have been hibernating in the cold December weather–they wouldn’t have been out in the waters while Mike was duck hunting. But she was warned by Denise’s family that it was time for Denise “to move on.” In fact, six months after Mike went missing, Denise put together a memorial service for Mike and petitioned the courts to pronounce him legally dead. This usually takes at least five years. She won her case, and received more than $2 million in Mike’s life insurance. But guess who had sold Mike the hefty policy? That’s right. Brian Winchester. He sold it to Mike about six months before the disappearance. Cheryl also never saw her granddaughter again–she was told if she kept looking into Mike’s disappearance that would happen, and Denise followed through on the threat.

In the episode of “Disappeared” that I watched, I found it interesting that Denise and Brian chose not to participate in the episode. They declined to answer any questions from producers. They also got married a few years after Mike’s disappearance, once Brian was divorced from his wife. The mystery of what happened to Mike may have remained unsolved if Denise and Brian’s marriage hadn’t eventually fallen apart. (I mean, what do you expect though? Look at the circumstances that led to their marriage!) They separated in 2012. In 2016, Brian got desperate and held Denise hostage in her car at gunpoint for several hours, trying to talk her into a reconciliation. Upon her release, she pressed charges and Brian was arrested. In October 2017, he was sentenced to 20 years for the kidnapping. The day after he was sentenced, investigators finally found Mike Williams’ body buried in about six feet of mud near a boat landing not far from his mother’s home. He had been murdered. And on his wedding anniversary. It doesn’t get much colder than that.

He had probably never been at Lake Seminole in the first place.

At the beginning of this month, I was shocked to come across a news article that Denise had been arrested for conspiring to have Mike murdered. This was the first I had heard about the divorce, the charges against Brian, and the discovery of Mike’s body.  In a way I can’t help feel like it’s karma that finally caught up with Denise Williams. It makes me sick to think about the three childhood friends (they had all gone to high school together–and Brian and Denise may have even known each other since preschool) and the plot to kill a man who seemed like a hard worker, dutiful husband and doting father. When he signed that insurance policy he thought he was probably just doing the right thing and having a plan for his wife and daughter in case anything ever happened to him. I’m glad the truth finally surfaced, although it won’t surprise me one bit if it comes out that Denise told Brian she or her daughter were being abused. And Brian decided to be the hero. I can only hope his conscience led him to tell investigators where Mike’s body was, and not just the temptation of a plea deal.

I hope the Williams family can finally find some peace now.

 

 

True Crime Wednesday: An Update on Lauria Bible and Ashley Freeman

Jay and Laurene Bible know their daughter is dead. Now, they just want to bring her home once and for all.

This case has always baffled me. In 1999, Sixteen-year-old Lauria Bible only wanted to spend the night at Ashley Freeman’s home in Welch, OK, eat cake, and celebrate her best friend’s 16th birthday. But hours later, the Freeman home burned to the ground, and as investigators sifted through the rubble, they found the bodies of Ashley’s parents, Danny and Kathy. Autopsies revealed the Freeman’s had been shot to death.

The girls were nowhere to be found. Laura’s purse was found on the property, though, with $200 cash inside along with her driver’s license. Her car was also still parked in the driveway.

When I first read about this case, I was perplexed. Had the two girls managed to escape the fire? If so, where were they? All sorts of conspiracy theories floated about. Danny Freeman had a history of being involved in drugs. Was it a drug deal gone bad? He had also been feuding the local sheriff’s department and was planning to file a wrongful death lawsuit against the county. His son Shane had stolen a pickup drug and been shot and killed during the pursuit. Or was it a murder-suicide and the girls saw what happened and fled?

Over the years, Jay and Laurene Bible tracked down every lead they could think of, only to be met with heartbreak at each turn. A death row inmate claimed to have murdered the Freemans, kidnapped the girls, murdered them and then abandoned their bodies in a mine shaft. After an exhaustive search of the mines he pinpointed, he finally admitted he had made the whole story up.

Ashley’s surviving family members moved to have her legally declared dead in 2010.

Last week, there was a huge break in the case along with an arrest. Investigators arrested a man named Ronnie Dean Busick, who they believe killed the Freemans as part of a drug dispute and then kidnapped the two girls. Two other suspects, Warren Phillip Welch and David Pennington, were also implicated but both are deceased. The arrest of Busick comes after old case notes were discovered. Apparently, over the years, different women who were involved with the three suspects claimed they knew the two girls were abducted, held captive for several days, raped, and then murdered. These witnesses were said to have been in fear for their lives, which was why they never came forward officially. One woman has claimed to have seen a briefcase full of polaroid photos of the girls, some with Busick posing with them. No actual evidence of these photos has been found.

Investigators and the Bible family are now hoping for closure and to find out where the girl’s bodies are so they can have a proper burial. So while there are answers, but closure has yet to be found.

Book Review: Crossing the Line by Ellen Valladares

When I got the e-mail about Ellen Valladares and the blog tour for her new YA novel, Crossing the Line, I jumped at the chance to review the book. A teenage girl ghost from the 1980s? A mystery? A young journalist as the protagonist? I couldn’t not check out the book, as these are themes near and dear to my own heart.

Thanks to Crystal Otto with WOW! Blog Tours for offering me the chance to participate! You can check out an interview with the author here.

About the book:

Laura, who died thirty years ago, enlists the help of a tenacious high school reporter named Rebecca, who is very much alive. Rebecca, although skeptical and conflicted by her supposed encounters with a spirit, determines to learn the truth about Laura’s tragic death. As the clues unravel and their worlds collide, Rebecca finds herself at a dangerous crossroads.

Laura, now pulled back into everything she left behind when she died – her old high school and memories of her life and death—has been in training for this exact moment. And nothing means more to her than succeeding at her assignment.

It is her one chance to make sure that what happened to her does not happen to anyone else, and especially not to her new friend, Rebecca.

About the author:

Ellen Wolfson Valladares is an award-winning writer/author, workshop facilitator, community volunteer, and mother. A native Floridian, she grew up in St. Petersburg and graduated with a bachelor’s degree in Journalism from the University of Florida. She has worked as an editor, public relations professional, and freelance writer. Her first book, a children’s novel entitled Jonathan’s Journey to Mount Miapu, received several awards, including a Mom’s Choice Gold Award and the 2009 Coalition of Visionary Resources Visionary Awards Book of the Year award. She also has a meditation CD, entitled “Healing and Manifestation with the Archangels.”
Today, Valladares continues to work as a freelance writer. She also enjoys coaching high school students working on their college essays and helping other writers realize their dreams. She has been married to her husband, Manny, for 30 years and they have two sons, Gabriel and Michael, two dogs, Flash and Chili Pepper, and a crazy cat named Zelda. They live in Weston, Fla.

Paperback: 300 pages

Genre: Fiction/Young Adult

Publisher: WiDO (March 2018)

ISBN-13: 978-1-937178-99-4

Review:

This book had everything I enjoy in a novel–relatable characters, paranormal elements, mystery, romance and a time period the features the  music and fashion I adored.  But Crossing the Line turned out to be so much more than that.

I knew from the opening pages that there was more to Laura’s death than met the eye. Through alternating chapters, the reader is able to learn more about the character of Laura, and her murder at the hands of a female classmate. Throughout the course of the novel, Laura is a student at “The Academy,” or how the author presents the Afterlife. As she learns various ways she can reconnect with the living, she also receives a mission that requires her to reach out to a modern-day student at her former high school, Rebecca.

When Rebecca first makes contact with Laura through a Ouija Board (remember those?), she is understandably frightened. But through her sleuthing skills and help of her journalism teacher, she starts to investigate Laura’s death and her long-standing feud with the girl who murdered her, Katie.

Valldares is a masterful writer and plotter, and I enjoyed reading the story through the alternating chapters of Laura and Rebecca’s voices. She skillfully tied the characters of the early 1980s to present day (I won’t get into too much here but there were plenty of surprises on that front!) and I could easily understand how a teenage boy could could cause friction among two female students. The mission Laura is on is also woven into the novel in a way that flowed seamlessly.

And not to give too much away, but I was also glad to have the chance to hear from the character of Katie herself, but I won’t reveal exactly how.

I look forward to sharing this book with  my own teenage daughter. I know she’ll love it.

 

Book Review: Ashes in the Ocean by Sebastian Slovin

Today I’m hosting author Sebastian Slovin in support of his touching memoir, Ashes in the Ocean: A Son’s Story of Living Through and Learning From His Father’s Suicide, during his blog tour with WOW! Women on Writing.

Here’s what you need to know about the book:

Vernon Slovin was a legend. He was one of the best swimmers in his home country of South Africa, and for a time in the world. He prided himself on being the best. The best in sports, business, and life. He had it all, a big home, athletic prestige, fancy clothes and cars, and a beautiful wife and family. Everything was going his way until it all came tumbling down. He lost everything, including his own life. In the wake of his suicide he left his wife and two young children.

In this riveting memoir, Vernon’s son, Sebastian Slovin chronicles his experience of living in the shadow of a suicide, and his journey out of the darkness and into the light. Slovin shares his quest to uncover why his father took his own life. A pilgrimage that led him around the world and eventually back to himself.

Ashes in the Ocean is a powerful story about facing one’s fears and choosing a different path.

Paperback: 222 pages
Genre: Memoir
Publisher: Nature Unplugged (March 2018)
ISBN-10: 978-0-692-05119-1
ISBN-13: 978-0692051191

About the Author:

Since he can remember, nature has been a central part of Sebastian’s life. He was fortunate to grow up in the beach community of La Jolla, California, and spent his childhood mixing it up in the ocean. As a young boy, he lost his father to suicide, which would later deeply inspire his path in life. As a young adult, he had the opportunity to travel extensively and experience many of the world’s great surf spots as a professional bodyboarder. Through his travel, Sebastian developed a deep love and appreciation for our natural world, and at the same time was drawn to the practice of yoga.

His love for yoga led him to study at Prana Yoga Center in La Jolla, California, and his passion for nature eventually led him to pursue a BA in Environment and Natural Resource Conservation at San Diego State University. He also holds an MA in Leadership Studies from the University of San Diego.

He lives with his wife Sonya in Encinitas, California. He and Sonya have a business called Nature Unplugged, which focuses on cultivating wellness through healthier relationships with technology and a deeper connection to nature. When he is not writing or working on Nature Unplugged, Sebastian enjoys swimming, bodysurfing, surfing, and stand-up paddling (pretty much all things) in the wild Pacific Ocean. Find Sebastian Online:

Website: www.sebastianslovin.com

Amazon Author Profile:  https://www.amazon.com/Sebastian-Slovin/e/B078XN8XZL

Facebook: https://www.facebook.com/SebastianSlovinAuthor/

Twitter: https://twitter.com/sebastianslovin

Review:

From the opening pages of Ashes in the Ocean, I was pulled into Sebastian Slovin’s personal and heartfelt memoir. My heart raced as I read through the description of a popular annual swimming race in California and how Vernon Slovin would deliberately enter the heat of the race with the younger competitors just to challenge himself. I could easily picture his beautiful young family cheering him on from the cliffs above. The scene is the perfect way to introduce the determined, physically fit man constantly seeking perfection and the acknowledgement that he was the best at anything he set his mind to.

There are some people who are born to be one with the water, and Vernon Slovin was one of them. He passed this legacy down to his son, Sebastian. The description of the ocean waves and pristine beaches in picturesque La Jolla, California throughout the book made me want to transport myself there—as did the later chapters featuring beaches in Australia and South Africa.

Because his father’s suicide occurred when he was only six years old, it was many years before Sebastian had the context in which to explore the dynamics in his father’s personality that would lead to such a catastrophic end. For years he and his mother and younger sister struggled to pick up the pieces, to survive without the sheltered and prosperous world Vernon Slovin had tried to insulate them in.

Although he was young when his father took his own life while staying with family in Australia, Sebastian grew up hesitant to discuss “the elephant in the room” with his mother for fear of opening up old wounds. He also feared, deep down, that because of his genetics and history of his father’s mental illness he too would have no choice but to succumb to a suicidal end.

Once in high school, though, Sebastian continued to cycle through the emotions many deal with after losing a loved one to suicide—confusion, guilt, and anger. To help process his lingering questions, Sebastian embarked on personal research project in the hopes of filling in the unanswered questions he had about his father’s life and death. With much of the dogged determination his own father had possessed, he met with his father’s former swim teammates, friends, and business partners. With each e-mail, conversation, and long-distance correspondence, he learned more and more about the competitive swimmer who was recruited from South Africa to compete at the college level in the United States.

Vernon took the same skills and drive that made him successful in swimming and translated that to his business life. During one of Sebastian’s interviews with one of his father’s friends, he started to understand that his father had an almost unhealthy obsession with “winning” and achieving his goals. He would shut out everything else while he worked to achieve them. Because of this obsession, he didn’t know what to do when he failed, which he ended up doing in his career as a stockbroker.

It’s clear both the legacy of his father and the shadow of his death affected Sebastian in more ways than one. He shared the same passion for water, and competed for many years in professional bodyboarding at beaches all over the world. When he discovered yoga, he became convinced he had to be the very best teacher and took all the certifications necessary to become a master instructor. It was only while sidelined after a serious hip surgery (where he re-injured himself after trying to get back in shape too quickly) that he realized he was following directly in his father’s footsteps once again.

Sebastian’s memoir is a thoughtful exploration of the deep ties we have to family and how we must shape our own destinies, regardless of what we think are the legacies left behind for us.

A Writer’s Relationship with Food–Finding Success with Weight Watchers

For me, there are certain things that have always helped me curate my identity as a writer. A warm cup of coffee, maybe a muffin with little dab of butter or a bagel, more coffee in the afternoon (if I really need a pick-me-up, Starbucks), etc., etc. Part of my writing life is visiting great restaurants and coffee shops and snapping photos of indulgent foods and drinks to share on social media. But then my clothes started getting tighter and the photos that had my face in them disappointed me. Why did my face look so swollen? Why did my tops look so tight on me? Why were there so many pairs of pants in my closet that I was having to set aside in favor of stretchy leggings?

My relationship with food had gotten out of hand. Although I make it a point to get my “butt out of the chair” as often as possible and exercise 4-5 days a week, I still wasn’t happy with the person I was seeing in the mirror. I tried to figure out what I wanted to do about it as the holidays rolled to an end.

I’ve tried MyFitnessPal in the past, and had success with it. The app is easy to use but tracking each and every single calorie I put in my mouth (as well as exercise minutes) grew tedious and I fell off the wagon after a few years. I considered the Whole 30 program. I know so many people who have done it and had great results, so I stocked my pantry with a few Whole 30-approved items like coconut oil and ghee and ordered a cookbook full of recipes that looked tempting. But then I thought longer and harder. I wasn’t really having any health issues like food allergies, inflammation (besides persistent reflux) to prompt me to take a bunch of foods out of my diet. I didn’t want to lose 15 pounds in a month and then gain it all back after I reintroduced foods.

I explored my options, and then saw an ad for the new Weight Watchers Freestyle program (yes, the one Oprah has been raving about). I liked the idea of all the Zero points foods, such as raw fruits an vegetables, eggs, Greek yogurt, skinless chicken breasts, shrimp, beans, etc. I also liked that I didn’t have to track every single calorie. If you eat a Zero point food you can track it but it isn’t mandatory like it would be on MyFitnessPal. Plus, I didn’t have to radically cut things out of my diet like alcohol, sugar, flour, dairy, etc.  Plus, you can eat out if you want, since Weight Watches has a great database of restaurant foods and how many points they equal.

Without giving it too much thought, I dove in, signing up for the online version. The bonus is that I can get two-months worth of membership back if I lose 10 pounds. That’s an incentive!

At first I was crabby, I’ll admit it. I was sad about giving up so much sugar and carbs. Then as the days went out, I realized how addicted I had been to sugar and carbs. The amount of cream and sugar I was dumping into my coffee daily (not to mention those loaded Starbucks drinks) had probably put 10 pounds on me alone. I started allowing myself one teaspoon of sugar in my coffee per day and using stevia for the rest. I began eating way more fruits and vegetables (and eggs) because they were zero points. In my first week alone, I lost 3.7 pounds. And I was eating great food–just much smaller portions and more lean protein and vegetables. It’s not rocket science, I know. You just have to be motivated and I finally am. The app is super easy to use and I can easily scan barcodes to see how many points that item is worth. The other day I was in the grocery store and got to the check-out line starving. I quickly scanned a LaraBar to see how many points it had–couldn’t be that bad, right? 11 points! Out of my daily 23? No thanks. I went home and ate some grapes for zero points and was just fine.

 

I have done so much more cooking at home and meal prep and my family keeps telling me that although they didn’t think I needed to lose weight, I look great and seem to have more energy. The weight watchers app has so many simple and tasty recipes I really don’t feel deprived at all.

In the past 11 days, I’ve had pizza, wine here and there, small amounts of dessert, and am still losing the weight.  I can’t wait to see where this journey takes me. It would be nice to reach my goal of 10-15 pounds by swimsuit season!

True Crime Wednesday: The Disappearance of Mary Shotwell Little

This case caught my eye in a recent round-up article of mysterious disappearances, mainly because it involves my home state of North Carolina, and the numerous theories that swirl around it.

Mary Shotwell Little was a young 25-year-old newlywed and secretary at a bank in Atlanta, GA. On Oct. 14, 1965, the night of her disappearance, her husband Roy Little was out of town for work training but planning to return the next day. Mary had plans to throw him a welcome-back party, and after work, she shopped for groceries and arranged to meet a co-worker for dinner at the Piccadilly Cafeteria at the Lenox Square Shopping Center. The next day, Mary didn’t show up for work and never called in, which was unusual for her. Her boss spoke with the colleague she had dinner with the night before and found out Mary left the cafeteria around 8 p.m. in good spirits. Security guards couldn’t find Mary’s car, a 1965 Mercury Comet, at first but then located it in the parking lot of the shopping center.

There was something unusual about the car, though. It was covered in a layer of red dust, as if it had been driven on a dirt road. Police found bags of groceries were found in the backseat. A pile of folded undergarments, speckled with blood, lay between the bucket seats, and a single nylon with one cut in it and a bra were on the floor. Mary’s coat, purse, keys, jewelry and dress were never found.

On the day following her disappearance, Mary’s credit card was used at a gas station in Charlotte, NC, which also happened to be her hometown, and then 12 hours later in Raleigh, NC. Investigators thought that was odd because the two cities were only about 3- 3 1/2 hours apart–so why would anyone wait so long in between credit card purchases? They were both signed “Mrs. Roy H. Little Jr.” Attendants at both gas stations told investigators they had seen a woman who appeared to have a head injury with blood on her head and legs with two unidentified men, but she kept her face hidden.

There are many theories about what happened to Mary, although none have ever been proven. Of course suspicion fell first on her husband, Roy, as it often does when a woman vanishes. He reportedly came across as cold and unconcerned when she went missing and refused to take a lie detector test on many occasions. But although many of her friends didn’t care for him, she seemed to be happy in the marriage and he had no motive to bring her harm.

There is also speculation that Mary staged her own disappearance, due to the carefully staged items (and small amount of blood smears) in her car, but that hasn’t been proven, either.  A woman did report that a man tried to accost her in the Lenox Square Shopping Center just a few hours before Mary would have been heading to her own car after dinner.

Co-workers told investigators Mary had taken several calls at work that seemed to be from an old suitor, whom she told she was married and no longer available. She also received a bouquet of flowers from a secret admirer that so that was also a little unsettling. Had someone been stalking her?

There were also reports of a sex scandal at Mary’s office that she knew about, and an F.B.I. agent had been sent in to investigate it. But although Mary had knowledge of it, investigators couldn’t tie those claims to her disappearance. It is a strange coincidence though that 18 months after Mary went missing, a female co-worker named Dianne Shields was found murdered, sexually assaulted and left in the trunk of her car. No link could ever be found between the two cases, though.

According to this recent article in The Charlotte Observer, a retired area detective has been spending time trying chase down a story that an inmate told two F.B.I. agents in 1966. He claimed he had been acquainted with two men who told him they had abducted a woman and killed her at a house in Mount Holly, NC. And . . . they were each paid $5,000 to do so.

And the mystery deepens, indeed.

Who Was in the Polaroid? The Case of Tara Calico

Sometime last year I came across a video on the case of Tara Calico, who vanished from her hometown in Belen, New Mexico after heading out on her daily 34-mile bike ride on her mother’s Huffy (Tara’s bike had a flat tire and needed to be repaired). The year was 1988 and Tara was 19 years old. Her mother knew she wouldn’t be gone too long because she had an afternoon tennis date with her boyfriend.

Witnesses saw a white pick-up truck following closely behind her as she took off, and although she had only planned on taking a short ride, she never came home. After the initial 24-hour waiting period, police traced her route and found her Boston cassette tape lying by the side of the road about three miles from her home. Tara was described as outgoing, studious, and hard-working. She was attending a local  college and working part-time when she vanished, so her family believed immediately that she wouldn’t have left on her own.

Some time later a Walkman believed to have belonged to Tara was discovered about 19 miles away at a local campground, along with what looked to be bike tracks or scuffle marks.

About nine months after Tara vanished, a woman came across a Polaroid photo in the parking lot of a grocery store in Port St. Joe, Fla. A white cargo van had been previously parked in the spot where the photo was found. The photo showed a young woman and an even younger boy both bound and gagged on a bed with some striped sheets.

Alburquerque Journal

The picture appeared to have been taken in the back of a white Toyota cargo van with no windows. When Tara’s mother saw the picture, she insisted the girl, who had a V.C. Andrews novel placed beside her, was Tara. Andrews was Tara’s favorite author. Other people speculated the boy with Tara was Michael Henley, a nine-year-old boy who had gone missing in the New Mexico Zuni mountains in 1988, but his remains were later found near the area where he went missing two years later.

The case has never been solved, but with the renewed interest of the former sheriff, Rene Rivera, and an old classmate of Tara’s, Melinda Esquibel, closure could be on the horizon. There are rumors in the town of Belen that  two teenage boys were possibly involved in the abduction and subsequent murder of Tara, and that parents of the boys helped cover it up.  When Esquibel began working on  documentary of the case, the sheriff’s office in Valencia County gave her access to what little files existed on the case. What she found was in shambles and it was evident files had gone missing over the years. She began her own investigation that has been turned into a podcast, Vanished: The Tara Calico Investigation. I just started listening to the podcast and am curious to see what unfolds.

A lot of the fiction I write is inspired by true crime stories, and the Tara Calico case is no different. After hearing the initial story, I envisioned a young woman and boy held in captivity together for several years, and what would happen when they finally got the courage to escape. I wrote a short story called “The Polaroid,” and recently found out it placed first in the Suspense/Thriller Category of the Writer’s Digest Popular Fiction Awards.

True Crime Wednesday: The McStay Family Murders

The story of the McStay family intrigued me from the time I first heard about their sudden disappearance from their California home to the discovery of their bodies in the desert in the fall of 2013.

By all accounts, Joseph McStay, age 40, and his wife Summer, age 43, were happy and living the American dream. They had recently moved to a home in the suburbs of Fallbrook with their sons Gianni, age 4 and Joseph Jr., age 3, with plans to renovate it. Joseph ran a successful decorative water fountain business and he and Summer doted on their two young children.

In February 2010 Joseph’s father Patrick received an e-mail from one of Joseph’s business partners who was concerned because he hadn’t heard from Joseph. After Joseph’s brother visited the house and saw no signs of the family, Patrick called the local sheriff’s department and asked for them to do a welfare check. The detective who visited the home noticed two dogs in the backyard with a large bag of dog food, and signs that the family may have left the home abruptly. There was evidence of paint cans where Joseph and Summer had been painting along with food on the counter and bowls of popcorn on the couch. Family members were concerned–as Summer loved her dogs and would have never left them unattended in the backyard for days. The last time anyone had heard from the family had been on Feb. 4.

After several days, the sheriff’s department learned that the family’s Isuzu Trooper had been towed from a strip mall in San Diego, not far from the border of Mexico. Video surveillance on Feb. 8 during that time period showed a shadowy family of four making their way across the border checkpoint, but no one could ever confirm if it was the McStays or not. Authorities believed for the first few years that the McStays had traveled to Mexico during that time period and never returned. But the McStays had more than $100,000 in their bank accounts when they disappeared and it was never touched.

In November of 2013, a motorcyclist in the desert found a set of human remains buried in Victorville, Calif. The bodies were later determined to be those of the McStay family, and it was clear they had died violent deaths, including blunt force trauma. Not long after, police arrested Chase Merritt, Joseph’s business associate in the fountain business who had also been the one to notify Patrick McStay of the missing family. Merritt was also the last person known to be in contact with Joseph–they met for lunch the afternoon of the family’s disappearance.  He also had borrowed $30,000 from Joseph to cover a gambling debt. Merritt is still awaiting trial, as he keeps firing his counsel and has attempted to represent himself a few different times. He has a criminal background and apparently wrote thousands of dollars worth of check’s from Joseph’s business accounts in the days after the disappearance.

While this all seems shady, I have to wonder what exactly went down. Had Joseph discovered Merritt was embezzling money and confronted him? Or was he about to make the discovery and Merritt tried to head him off? Why kill the whole family? The police didn’t see any signs of violence when they examined the home, although there were fresh coats of paint on the walls where they assumed Joseph and Summer had been painting. But by the time they arrested Merritt in 2014 another family was living in the house and they couldn’t do the usual testing for blood spatter, etc.  Too much time had passed. There also wasn’t any blood in the Isuzu Trooper, which Merritt must have driven to the border checkpoint in an attempt to throw a wrench in the investigation. His DNA was found in the car, possibly from a skin or sweat transfer, but that could easily be explained away by a criminal defense attorney. Investigators are looking into the idea that Merritt may have had help in committing the crime.

So where did the murder take place? A sledgehammer, most likely the murder weapon, was found in the shallow graves of the bodies. That would cause cast-off that was never found. The bottom line is–the story is heartbreaking. A loving mother and father and two very young children lost their lives over what–money? I’m just hopeful that if Merritt is the one responsible that he is convicted and given the harshest punishment possible for the senseless deaths of the McStay family.

 

True Crime Wednesday: What Happened to Zachary Bernhardt?

Zachary Bernhardt was 8 years old when he disappeared on Sept. 11, 2000. One can only hope that he is alive and well today at the age of 25 years, possibly with no memory of who he is. But there are many that believe he met with foul play years ago.

The story is an odd one, and you pretty much only have the word of one person about what happened that night, and that’s Zachary’s mother, Leah. A single mom who often had trouble making ends meet, she told investigators she had insomnia that night and decided to take a swim in the apartment complex’s swimming pool between 3 and 4 a.m., leaving Zachary alone with the door unlocked.  When she returned, she immediately took a shower and then checked on Zachary, only to discover he wasn’t in his bed. She called police around 4:47 a.m. The phone call was odd, based on the recording played on the episode of “Disappeared” I watched. She sounded distraught, told 911 that is was “her fault” he was gone, and that he was a very well-behaved boy.

 

Right away, investigators had a few problems with her story. For starters, who goes swimming at 3 a.m. fully clothed, without even putting on a bathing suit? And why leave the door to your apartment unlocked when you know your 8-year-old son is in there sleeping? A few neighbors also stated that they noticed Leah’s car had left around the time she went swimming and returned later in the early hours of the morning before she made the call.

Leah and Zachary had a history of moving around a lot, and were reported to have been facing eviction at the time he went missing. Despite a massive search, no evidence of what happened to Zachary was ever found.

Investigators thought there might be a break in the case in 2001 when a nearby resident, Kevin Jalbert, told an acquaintance he was looking for a child to abduct and that he had abducted and killed many children before. When police questioned him about Zachary, he pointed at the wrong apartment and his description of the boy’s pajamas conflicted with information from Leah. He had a history of lying to people in order to get attention, though, which made him less than credible.  There was no physical evidence to tie Jalbert to Zachary’s disappearance, but he is serving 40 years in prison now on child pornography charges.

Another odd thing? On New Year’s Eve 2001, a 5-year-old boy was abducted from the same apartment complex and found alive in a dumpster ten hours later. He told police a white man with stringy hair had taken him. Despite thorough investigation, the police couldn’t find a connection between Zachary’s case and the New Year’s Eve abduction.

At some point, although Leah’s family members are still spearheading the search for Zachary, Leah herself stopped cooperating with the investigation, moved to Hawaii, got married, and changed her name. She appears to no longer be looking for her son that disappeared all those years ago.

True Crime Wednesday: The Disappearance of Bear Diaz

As a mom, this case is a hard one to wrap my mind around. Imagine if your child was frail from being ill and he went missing late at night after you dropped him off at home. That’s what happened in the case  of California resident Elijah “Bear” Diaz on Aug. 29, 2015.

Bear was a member of the Barona Band of Mission Indians. Because of this, he was receiving a monthly stipend from the casino on the reservation. The money enabled him to live comfortably and even purchase his own house. But he had been in poor health for awhile due to living with Type 1 Diabetes. He had a serious foot injury and had to walk on crutches. His mother, LeLanie Thompson, had been driving him whenever he needed to run errands and go to doctor appointments.  When I watched the “Disappeared” episode featuring Bear’s case, his mother shared that her son had been very trusting and opened his home to many people–you never knew who you would find crashing on the couch or sitting around Bear’s flat-screen TV playing video games.

On the night of Aug. 29, 2015, LeLanie dropped Bear off at home in El Cajon around 10:30 p.m. She received a text from him a little later before she turned in for the night. She went back to his home the next afternoon and discovered he was missing. LeLanie had a bad feeling and immediately contacted the police, but they were hesitant to act right away because of his age and the fact that he hadn’t been missing long. When they did search his house, Bear’s crutches were missing, along with the comforter on his bed,  a backpack containing about a week’s worth of insulin, and Bear’s 50-inch TV. His glasses were left behind.  LeLanie knew then that someone had to have taken 110-pound Bear out of the house.

His cell phone was turned off on Aug. 30 and never turned back on. Police searched an area near Santa Ysabel where a cellphone signal had been traced but found nothing. They also conducted a luminol test in his home but didn’t detect any blood.

Bear’s family has come to terms with the fact that he is no longer alive. Now they are simply looking for answers. In a recent Facebook post on the Bring Bear Diaz Home page, LeLanie told of how she decided to let the second anniversary of Bear’s disappearance go by as quietly as she could, with the exception of a scheduled haircut. In the Native American culture, one cuts their hair when a loved one passes on. She says her heart is telling her that he is gone. She said:

All I can do is to find peace, embrace love, and hold on to joy… Bear would want me to. He loved me so strongly, I simply need to hold tight to my memories, and keep moving forward. Counting my blessings, and reaching for the full moon.

Please contact the El Cajon Police Department at (619) 579-3311 with information about this case.