TWO GONE MISSING –

THE MISSING PERSONS CASES OF TOM STUMP AND DIANA HARRIS

(a work in progress)

 

CHAPTER ONE

 

When the phone rang at 4:30 on the afternoon of July 24, 1995, Rose Stump of Tiro, Ohio, who was in the kitchen, starting to prepare supper, felt a sudden chill of apprehension. 

Later, when she thought back on it, she could find no reason for this unusual reaction to such a normal event.  It had been a lovely summer, filled with class reunions, family get-togethers and visits from grandchildren, with no dark clouds on the horizon.  As a second grade teacher, who did volunteer work tutoring slow readers, and an involved member of her church community, Rose was accustomed to receiving more phone calls in one day than most women received in a week.  So, why this sudden unreasonable feeling of foreboding that made her draw in a sharp breath, drop a half-peeled potato and a paring knife onto the counter, and race to the phone.

The voice on the other end of the line was familiar and beloved.  It was that of her thirteen-year-old step-granddaughter, Bonnie.

“Hello, Bonnie, what a surprise!” Rose exclaimed.  “I didn’t expect to hear from you today!  Your family always calls on weekends!  And aren’t all of you busy packing for your vacation?” 

Rose and her husband, Charlie’s, oldest son, Tom Stump, who was Bonnie’s stepfather, had phoned just the day before from their home on Sugarloaf Key, Florida, to say that he had rented a van to take his wife Bernie, Bonnie, and his and Bernie’s daughter Sally, on a family vacation trip. They were planning to go to Disney World and then on to St. Augustine for a visit with Bernie’s family.  This was more than just a vacation, but a special celebration, as tomorrow was Sally’s eighth birthday, and Tom, who adored both his daughter and step-daughter, wanted to make this occasion one they would always remember.

“I’ll call you as soon as we get back, Mom,” Tom had told Rose.  “There is stuff you and I need to talk about, but it can wait.  I want this trip to be a really fun time for the kids.”

When Bonnie didn’t respond to her grandmother’s question, Rose’s apprehension grew stronger.  “Bonnie,” she said, “is something wrong? Is somebody sick?”

“It’s – Tom,” Bonnie stammered.  “He – he’s – gone.”

“Tom’s gone?” Rose repeated in bewilderment.  “Where did he go?”  All she could imagine was that Tom had left to gas up the van.  But, if so, why did Bonnie seem so upset?

 “We think Tom committed suicide,” Bonnie blurted.

“You think what?” Rose gasped incredulously.  “What are you talking about?  Is this some kind of a joke?”

 “He walked into the woods, walked out, walked into the woods, walked out, walked into the woods and stayed,” Bonnie said. 

When Rose began to ask questions, Bonnie wouldn’t answer them.

“Here,’ she said, “I’ll let you talk to my Mom.”

There was a break in the conversation, and Rose could hear muffled voices in the background.  Then her daughter-in-law picked up the receiver.

“Bernie,” Rose said, her voice shaking, “what’s going on down there?”

Bonnie’s telling the truth, Rose,” Bernie told her.  “I’m sure this is an awful shock to you, as it is to all of us.  But I’m afraid Tom has gone out back to shoot himself, to commit suicide.”

Rose felt as if she were stumbling blindly through a nightmare.

“Tom would never do that!” she said.  “I just talked to him yesterday.  He was all excited about taking the kids to Disney World.  There’s no way in the world he would suddenly decide to kill himself!”

“Well, he did,” Bernie said in an emotionless voice.  “Last night, I told Tom I’d fallen in love with somebody else and wanted a divorce.  He got very upset and told me that, if I didn’t change my mind by eleven this morning, he was going to kill himself.  So at eleven this morning he went off into the woods, and I’m afraid he’s lying out there dead somewhere.  I called the sheriff’s department, and they are searching for Tom.  I’ll call you later and tell you what they find.”

She hung up the phone.

Too stunned to know how to react, Rose glanced at her watch.  Charlie and their son Steve would be home from work any time now, so it made no sense to go out looking for them.  Charlie was a farmer, and his schedule was dictated by the care of livestock, so she knew almost exactly when he would be home for dinner. While waiting for him, Rose phoned their sons, Chad and Chris.  Their daughter Stasi was at a camp connected to her work, and Rose knew she could not reach her immediately.  She would have to be told later.

Chad and Chris reacted with stunned disbelief. 

 “It’s just Bernie, being a drama queen,” Chris said comfortingly.  “She and Tom probably had a spat, and he went off by himself to cool off for a while.  For her to make poor little Bonnie call you is unforgivable.  Imagine, getting a twelve-year-old involved in this fiasco!”

            Their youngest son, Chad, who was extremely close to his oldest brother, spoke with

even more certainty.

“There’s no way Tom would ever kill himself,” Chad said emphatically.  “I talked to him just last week, and he told me he would probably be getting a divorce.  He said he thought Bernie was having an affair, and it’s one affair too many, and since I’m going through a divorce myself, he suggested that I move down there and work for him and move in with him.”

Taking comfort in her children’s reassurances, Rose felt slightly less panicky and, not knowing what else to do, went ahead with supper preparations, moving like a robot through the long-established routine of putting potatoes on to boil, making a salad, and laying three places at the kitchen table.  She both longed for and dreaded Charlie’s homecoming, for although she desperately needed his strength and support, she knew his reaction would be explosive.  Charlie had a short fuse and would not take kindly to Bernie’s game-playing and flare for the dramatic.

Chad was right, Rose thought as she set out the water glasses.  If Tom had learned that Bernie was cheating on him, his reaction would have been anger, not self-pity.  She vividly recalled a previous occasion when Tom and Bernie had separated after Tom stumbled on Bernie’s diary and read her account of an affair she was having with her employer.  Tom’s reaction had been to demand that Bernie move out.  “It’s the code of the hills,” he had said.  “If a man finds his wife is cheating on him, out she goes.”  On that occasion, Bernie had moved in with a former boyfriend, Bill Becker, (ironically not the lover she’d identified in her journal).  The separation had lasted about six weeks, at which point Tom had given in to Bernie’s pleas to give her another chance.  Never, during any of that time period, had he shown any indication of suicide.  He was simply angry and disgusted.

But, thank God, on that occasion he had taken her back, because that reunion had given them Sally, the apple of Tom’s eye, as was Bonnie, whom he considered as much his own as Sally.  Bonnie’s natural father, Mark Ripin, came and went when he felt like it, but was always made welcome in Tom’s home.  That was partly due to the fact that Mark was Bonnie’s birth father, and partly because Mark and Bernie had maintained a strong friendship even after their divorce.  Bonnie went by the name “Stump,” but Mark was good to Bonnie, and Tom felt it important that the two maintain a relationship. 

In the hour between Bonnie’s phone call and Charlie and Steve’s arrival home from work, Rose got herself under control.  Charlie’s outrage when she gave him the news was just what she had expected, but she was able to calm him down a bit by repeating the reassurances of their other children. 

“Tom will be back,” she said firmly.  “You know there’s no way he’s committed suicide.  I bet the phone rings any minute now, and it will be either Bonnie or Tom himself telling us he’s home.” 

The phone did ring during dinner and constantly throughout the evening, but the calls were all from Tom’s brothers.  “Is there more news?”  “Please, repeat exactly what Bernie said to you.”  “Is there anything we can do?”  Chris’s wife, Fran, went so far as to phone Bernie herself and called Rose to repeat the conversation.  “Bernie says you must have misunderstood her about having a boyfriend,” Fran said.  “She said she hopes that someday she will meet somebody, but right now there’s no man in the picture.”

“I know what she told me,” Rose said.  “Bernie said she was in love with someone, and that’s why Tom went off to kill himself.” 

“She was very convincing,” Fran said doubtfully.

“She always is,” Rose said.  “Well, there’s nothing we can do tonight except pray for Tom’s safety.  I’m sure he’ll be back by morning.”

“And, let’s pray that, when he gets back, he’ll follow through on that divorce,” Charlie said, controlling his anger with effort.  “And that he insists on keeping the house with that new swimming pool he just put in and that he sues to get custody of the kids.  After all, he takes most of the care of those little girls anyway, and Bernie is going to be occupied with her new lover.”

“She says she doesn’t have a new lover,” Rose said.  “She told Fran that I misunderstood her.”

“Huh!” Charlie muttered, forcing himself to swallow any further comment.

By the following evening Tom still hadn’t returned.  Bernie reported that the Monroe County Sheriff’s Department had been searching the area with a dog, but the dog had not found Tom’s body.  In fact, instead of going to the woods behind the house, which was where Bonnie and Bernie both said Tom had disappeared, the search dog had followed Tom’s scent along the fence to the road.  Bernie also said a search party of friends and neighbors would be combing the woods for Tom on Saturday.

“Please, let us know if you hear anything,” Rose begged her.  Bernie promised that she would.

On the outside, Rose remained calm, for Charlie’s sake and the sake of their other children, but on the inside she was falling apart.  The phone calls among the immediate family continued.  “No news is good news” was becoming a favorite saying.  During the day, Rose would visit the little country church that the family attended and sit there, crying, as she was overwhelmed by memories of Tom’s baptism, his first holy communion, his confirmation and the many masses he had served there, learning Latin so he could participate.  She pleaded with God to let her son be found safe, to let him come back, to let nothing terrible have happened to him.  She thought of the story from Luke about how Jesus had been lost in the temple and how worried Mary and Joseph were until they found him.  She prayed that Mary would understand her own frantic feelings of fear and despair and bring her own boy home safely.

Finally, their youngest son, Chad, could stand the pressure no longer.

He phoned Rose and said, “I know Dad can’t get away with the cattle to feed and all the farm chores, but I think you and I should fly down there. I’ll call Bernie and tell her while you’re getting your bag packed.”

It wasn’t until Rose and Chad were on the plane, headed for Florida, that Chad broke the news that he had asked a friend who was a private detective to meet them in the Keys.

“From what Bernie’s told you, it sounds like the sheriff’s department hasn’t done a thing but hunt in the woods for a suicide victim,” Chad said.  “Apparently nobody’s considered the possibility of foul play.  Mom, what if Tom’s been abducted?   What if he’s been murdered?   What if the dog went to the road because somebody dragged Tom out there and put him in a car?”

“No!” Rose gasped.  Chad, please – that just isn’t possible!  Why in the world would anyone want to kill Tom!  But she knew in her heart that murder was what Charlie suspected.  She felt a sudden surge of gratitude for the chores that had made it impossible for Charlie to accompany them, because she knew that he would not have been able to conceal his grief and fury.  In his mind, even if Tom was – please, God – alive and well, and had gone off somewhere to start building the foundation for a new life for himself and the children, it was Bernie’s actions that had driven him to do that. 

“Tom will be back,” Rose kept repeating, clinging desperately to that one shred of hope that was all that was keeping her going. 

“I hope so,” Chad said.  “But, let’s face it, it’s been three days, Mom.  There’s nothing to lose by having a private investigator check on what Tom did on the morning he disappeared.  Did anybody see him that morning?  Was he doing the things that it’s natural to do when you’re going on vacation?  Did he stop the mail?  Put gas in the car?  Take money out of his bank account?  Did he make any phone calls?  If so, who did he call and what did he say?”

“You’re right,” Rose conceded reluctantly.  “I’m glad you hired an investigator.  But Bernie isn’t going to be happy. She’ll consider it an invasion of privacy.”

The other thing Chad hadn’t told Rose was that he had not informed Bernie that Rose would be accompanying him to Florida.  She was expecting to see only Chad.

 “What are you doing here?” she demanded when Rose trailed her son in the door

“I couldn’t stay home,” Rose said simply.

Bernie told Rose and Chad that they could stay in her home for two nights, but if they wanted to remain in the area longer than that, they would have to get a motel room, because – with or without Tom – she and the girls were going on vacation.  She also told Rose that she was not to question the children, as they were not allowed to talk about anything that had happened.

However, without being questioned, eight-year-old Sally volunteered a statement that Bernie was obviously not prepared for.

“Mommy’s got a boyfriend, and Bonnie doesn’t like him,” Sally said, with all the innocent sweetness in her little-girl heart.

…………………………………………………………………………………………………………

 

Little did Rose Stump know that, at that very moment, the Monroe County Sheriff’s Department was reactivating another missing person’s case. Diana Lynn Harris had disappeared from the same area of the Florida Keys in October 1981, and her body had never been found.  Diana’s case had been inactive for years, but her daughter, Christine, who had been only ten when her mother vanished, had spent those years pursuing the investigation on her own and had finally come up with enough evidence that her mother was murdered to force authorities to take another look at the case.

It would be another nine years before Christine and Rose would find each other via the Internet and discover a bizarre link between their missing loved ones’ cases. That link was the fact that, at the time of their disappearances, both Tom Stump and Diana Harris were involved with the same three individuals.  Tom’s wife, Bernie, and her former husband, Mark Ripin, (Bonnie’s natural father), were two of those people.

And the third was a very scary person indeed.

 

 

 

CHAPTER TWO

 

That night Rose and Chad slept in the twin beds in Sally’s pretty pastel bedroom.  Although both had been up most of the previous night preparing for their trip to Florida, neither slept soundly. Tossing and turning became their sleep pattern.  When Rose did manage to doze off, she would come abruptly awake at every sound, from the rustle of trees outside the window to the sound of footsteps as one or the other of the children padded down the hall to the bathroom. 

Each time she would anxiously ask herself, “Is it possible that’s Tom? Has he decided to come home?”

It was a long and unsettling night.

Finally the room grew light, and she and Chad arose to the aroma of freshly made coffee.  Rose’s heart leapt with a sudden desperate hope that Tom might truly have returned and made his peace with Bernie and that, even at that very moment, he and his family were in the kitchen  having breakfast together.  But that dream dissolved as quickly as it had arisen when they entered the kitchen and found Bernie there by herself, setting out cups and glasses on the island in the center of the room.  Tom obviously had not returned, and the girls were still sleeping.

Bernie greeted them pleasantly and offered them juice and coffee.

            “I’d love some juice,” Rose told her, wishing she liked coffee, for she certainly could have used the caffeine boost coffee-drinkers talked about.  “I hardly slept at all last night. I kept waking up, listening for Tom.”

            “That’s so sad,” Bernie said sympathetically.  “Rose, dear, you’ve just got to face the fact that Tom’s gone for good.  He said he was going to commit suicide, and that’s what he’s done.  And the cruelest part of it is, he did it on Sally’s birthday.”

“Please, tell us everything,” Rose said, accepting a glass of juice and taking a seat at the table. “Start from the very beginning and don’t skip a thing.  When Tom walked into the woods, was he carrying a gun?”

“No, he wasn’t carrying a gun when he left,” Bernie said. “He once told me that he kept a gun in a pail in the woods, so that must be what he used to shoot himself.”

“He kept a gun in the woods?” Chad repeated incredulously.  “Why in God’s name would he do that?”  It was common knowledge that Tom was a gun collector.  He had even purchased a gun for Bernie when she told him she wanted a weapon for self-protection.  But Chad also knew that Tom regarded his guns as prized possessions.  It was impossible to imagine him leaving one outside in the swampland behind his house, to rust in the heat and humidity of a Florida summer.   

“Tom called me on Sunday and told me he’d rented a van for your family vacation,” Rose said to Bernie.  “Was that true?  Did he really do that?”

 “Yes,” Bernie said.  “We did drive down to Key West and rent a mini-van on Sunday morning.  We were discussing divorce, but Tom wanted us to make the trip anyway.  So, we brought the van home, and that afternoon we drove back to Key West to take the girls and two of their friends to a restaurant called Friday’s to celebrate Sally’s birthday.  After dinner, Bonnie went to spend the night with her friend. Then, Sally got sick and started throwing up.  I was feeling emotionally wrung out and needed to get out of the house for a break, so I went over to a friend’s house for about thirty minutes.  When I got back home, Sally still wasn’t feeling any better.  I can only imagine it was food poisoning.  Anyway, Tom and I were up most of the night taking care of her.”  She paused and then added, “That gave the two of us a lot of time to talk about where our marriage was going or not going.  That’s when Tom told me he wouldn’t let me divorce him.  I told him that I was more than willing to work this situation through with him, to go to marriage counseling and see if we could work out our problems.  But he wasn’t willing to do that.   He said he would give me until eleven the next morning to give him a guarantee that I would stay with him for at least the next ten years.  He said if I didn’t promise him that, he would kill himself.”

That scenario seemed so outrageous that Rose found herself unable to swallow her juice.

“So, what happened the next morning?” she asked shakily.

“Bonnie came home from her friend’s house at ten-thirty,” Bernie said.  “She found Tom in his downstairs work room, lacing up his boots.  They talked for a while, and when it got to be eleven, and I still hadn’t promised Tom I would stay in the marriage, he kissed all of us – Bonnie and Sally and me – goodbye.  The three of us were crying and ranting and raving, but Tom was a hundred and eighty pound man, and there wasn’t any way we could stop him.  We walked him to the edge of the woods, and he went off and left us standing there, screaming for him to come back.  That was the last we ever saw of him.  One reason I’m sure he had no intention of returning is that later I was rummaging through his closet and found a pair of shorts he’d worn earlier that morning.  His wallet and watch and house keys were in the pocket.  When he walked away, he didn’t take anything with him, not even his sunglasses.  Tom never went anywhere without his sunglasses.”

“If he went into the woods and didn’t come out, then he’s got to be in there,” Chad said reasonably.  “Dead or alive, he’s still there.  I’m going to spend the day searching for him.  When I packed, I forgot to bring boots.  Is it okay if I wear a pair of Tom’s?”

“Of course,’ Bernie said.  “You’ll find his boots downstairs in his work room.  And you won’t have to search by yourself.  There’s a neighbor of ours, a retired cop, who’ll be glad to go with you.”  She got up from the table and began to rinse out the glasses and coffee cups.

The morning inched its way by with maddening slowness.  Chad and Tom’s cop friend went out together to search the acres of jungle growth behind the house.  The children woke up and ate breakfast, and Bernie efficiently went about her daily chores.  Bernie was an excellent housekeeper and took great pains to keep their home immaculate.  Today was no exception.  Rose empathized with her daughter-in-law’s need to keep busy, having learned from recent experience that keeping physically occupied was sometimes the only way to bear the unbearable.

When Rose went into Sally’s room to make up the beds, Sally wandered in to play with her dolls and showed her a little stick doll.  She said that Mommy’s friend had given her the doll to put under her pillow to keep her from having bad dreams.  She gave the doll to Rose to put under her own pillow that night.

Although, to Rose, the doll looked like something she once had seen in the window of a shop that sold voodoo items, she was touched by Sally’s love and concern.  She held the child close, burying her face in the shiny blond hair which always seemed to smell like flowers.  This is Tom’s flesh and blood, she told herself silently.  This is the biggest part of his heart.  Never, never would he deliberately leave Sally!

 “What do you think happened to your daddy?” she asked her granddaughter.

“He’s coming back,” Sally assured her, seemingly unworried.

Bonnie, on the other hand, appeared stressed and exhausted, as if she carried the weight of the world on her young shoulders.  Later that morning, when Rose asked her if Tom’s disappearance had been in the news, Bonnie responded shortly, “No.  Mom knows somebody who can keep it out of the papers.”

At noon, Detective Jan Penley from the Monroe County Sheriff’s Department came to the house to take statements.  She set up her tape recorder on the kitchen table and conducted separate interviews with Bernie and the children.  After those were over, she also questioned Rose.  Her questions for Rose were primarily about Tom’s childhood and how often he and his parents kept in touch once Tom moved to Florida.  Bernie had told her that Rose no longer really knew Tom, having spent little time with him in recent years, and depended on phone conversations for information about his personal life.  She had also noted that Tom’s reassuringly normal conversation with his mother had occurred the morning before he “snapped.”

After their recorded interview, Detective Penley asked Rose to step out onto the porch so she could speak with her privately.

“Something doesn’t seem right here,” she said in a low voice.  “Your son’s wife seems unusually cheerful, given this serious situation. And she’s talking about going on vacation.  Did she tell you that?”

“She’s planning to leave this coming Sunday,” Rose told her.  “A friend of Tom’s is organizing a big search party for tomorrow, and Bernie wants to be here for that.  She’s told Chad and me that we can sleep here again tonight, but tomorrow we’ll have to move out, because she and the children are leaving the following morning.” 

“Don’t you find that a bit odd?” the detective asked her.  “To go off on a vacation when your husband’s gone missing?“

“It’s her parents’ fiftieth anniversary,” Rose explained in defense of her daughter-in-law.  “This is something that Bernie’s family has been planning for months.  It means a lot to her to be there, and maybe she needs their company for emotional support.”

They weren’t able to talk any further, because Bernie came out of the house with a message for the detective and then followed her out to her car.  In Detective Penley’s report she included the statement:  "Complainant’s demeanor was very upbeat, and she spoke of getting on with her life.”  She also stated, “Complainant Bernadette Stump followed me out to the car and seemed extremely nervous about my conversation with victim’s mother.” 

Once Detective Penley had driven off, Bernie questioned Rose and the girls about what they had said in their statements.

 Bonnie responded with basically the same story that Bernie had told Rose earlier, but with more details.  She said that, after returning from her over-night at her friend’s house, she had talked to her dad for about an hour.  "He told me he loved me and was going to miss me very much,” she said.  “He told me to take care of my sister and my mom -- feed the dogs -- feed the rabbits – and clean my room.  He said he wouldn’t see me again.  I thought he was moving away, and I asked, ‘Will you call me and write to me?’ and he said no, but I’d see him in my dreams.  I asked him if he was going to kill himself, and he said no.  Then he and I went upstairs to see Sally, and he told her he was going for a walk.  Sally and I both ran downstairs to say goodbye, and both of us were crying.  Then we went back upstairs and cuddled with Mom for a while, and when we came down again he was gone.  The detective asked me if I’d ever thought Dad might kill himself.  I told her, ‘Never!  Man, he’s not that kind of a person!’  She asked me where I thought he’d gone.  I told her I thought he’d taken off hitchhiking to visit Grandma Stump in Ohio.”

In this statement Bonnie made no mention of having seen Tom walk in and out of the woods three times, as she had previously described to Rose, or of her mother’s trying to prevent tom from leaving.  And she apparently no longer agreed with her mother’s theory that Tom had committed suicide.

Sally’s version of the story was totally different.  She said she had told the detective that she had been sick to her stomach in the night and, when she woke up the next morning, her father had gotten her juice and given her a bath.  She said they had played for a while on the computer, and then she had gone back to bed.  She said Tom had assured her that he was going to do everything he could to keep them together and had then driven off in a car.  She made no mention of racing frantically downstairs and standing, weeping, with her mother and sister, while Tom walked into the woods.

Bernie did not seem happy with the conflicting stories and announced that she was taking the girls to visit a counselor who was a personal friend of hers.  While the three were gone, Chad and Tom’s cop friend came back from their search of the woods, hot, tired and discouraged.  They had found no sign of Tom or of the pail that Bernie said he had stored a gun in, but were bolstering each other’s spirits with the hope that the following day’s group search would be more productive.

“Tomorrow there will be a whole army of us combing the woods,” Chad said.  “If Tom is really in there, someone will find him.”

When Bernie returned with the children, she came storming up the stairs in a rage, with her daughters cowering in her wake.  Obviously something disturbing had happened since they’d left.

“What did you think you were doing pumping my children about their father?” Bernie demanded of Rose.

“I didn’t pump them,” Rose protested.  “I may have asked them a few questions –   She paused as she tried to remember what exactly those questions had been.  “I did ask Sally where she thought her father had gone, and I asked Bonnie if the fact that Tom was missing had been in the news.  But I didn’t ask them anything beyond that – certainly nothing personal about your relationship with Tom or anything of that sort.”

“You had no right to ask them anything at all!” Bernie shouted at her.  “And the girls had no right to talk to you!  They knew I’d forbidden them to do that!  They disobeyed me!”

Rose turned to look at her granddaughters, and they averted their eyes.  Their faces were pale, and Bonnie looked like she might have been crying.  What could the counselor have said that had produced this reaction?  Or had the children really spent all this time with a counselor?  Was it possible that Bernie’s primary reason for taking them out of the house was to get them alone so she could ask them what information they had given Rose?  If so, she obviously hadn’t been pleased with their answers.

By this time, Rose’s nerves were so frayed by the traumatic events of the past week that she started to cry.

“I’m sorry,” she told her granddaughters.  “Please, forgive me.  The last thing I meant to do was get you in trouble.”

Choking back sobs, she started to go downstairs to join Chad, who had taken refuge in the screened area under the house.  But Bernie grabbed her arm and marched her back up again.

“You’re not walking away from this!” Bernie told her.  “What you’ve done here today is unforgivable!  You are never to talk to the girls about Tom, and I mean never!”

Bernie then left the house, stating that she, too, was going to visit a counselor in Key West.  When she didn’t return by suppertime, Chad ordered subs for himself and Rose and the children.  Then, Bonnie went to spend the night at a friend’s house, and Chad left as well, allegedly to check out local bars to see if he could find anyone who had information about Tom’s whereabouts.

“Bartenders tend to hear everything about everybody,” Chad said.  “Especially in an area like the Keys where bars are such popular hangouts.”

Rose and Sally watched television until Sally’s bedtime.  The child seemed so upset by her mother’s reaction to her last conversation with her grandmother that she seemed reluctant to talk about anything, including such innocuous subjects as school and neighborhood friends and the fun she had had with her cousins when she and Bonnie had visited Rose and Charlie earlier that summer.

Eventually Bernie returned from what Rose had to think was the longest counseling session on record. But, although she seemed calmer and more controlled, Bernie’s anger still simmered beneath the surface, and the tension in the room was too thick for Rose to be comfortable sitting there watching television.

Probably she just needs a good night’s rest, Rose told herself.  She must be as worn out as I am.  She’ll be back to her old self tomorrow.  She and Bernie had no past history of conflict.   They had not had much opportunity to build a close relationship, since they lived in different areas of the country, but Bernie had one of the most magnetic personalities that Rose had ever encountered, and on those occasions when they had been together with Tom and the children, she had been nothing short of delightful.  Which was why the scene she’d thrown earlier had come as such a shock to Rose.  It seemed totally out of character.  Either that, or it was a side of Bernie’s personality that she had never known existed.

She told Bernie goodnight and went to bed, but she couldn’t fall asleep.  She kept asking herself what terrible thing she had done to alienate her daughter-in-law so badly.  In retrospect, she did feel slightly guilty about asking Sally her opinion about what happened to Tom.  Sally was only eight, so the question might not have been appropriate, but while holding the child in her arms, it had just slipped out.  And Sally had not appeared to be upset in the slightest.  “He’s coming back,” she had answered with confidence.  She had been asked that same question by Detective Penley and very probably by the counselor and apparently had not been adversely affected by it. 

And Rose’s question to Bonnie had required nothing more that a factual answer – had Tom’s disappearance been in the news?  That was a reasonable thing to ask a 13-year-old.  It was Bonnie’s response to that question that was disturbing:  “Mom knows somebody who can keep it out of the paper.”  Why would Bernie want it kept out of the paper, especially since Tom’s friends were organizing a search party?  The more people who joined in that search, the more chance there would be of its succeeding.  And what if there was somebody out there who had personal knowledge that Tom had left town of his own volition?  That person might not realize that Tom’s loved ones were suffering under the misconception that he was dead.  An article in the paper or a missing person’s report on radio or television might be all it would take to bring that person forward with information that would give them all peace of mind.

When Chad returned around midnight, Rose was still lying there wide awake, staring at the ceiling.

“I didn’t spend the whole evening in bars, Mom,” Chad told her, sitting down on the bed across from her.  “I just said that in case Bernie asked Sally where I’d gone.  I went to the Sugarloaf Lodge, where our P.I. is staying.  He’s a real sharp guy and has already gotten some information.  The morning that Tom disappeared, he went to the post office and submitted a request to hold his mail.”

“Then he really was planning to go on vacation!” Rose exclaimed.

“It sure looks that way,” Chad said.  “You don’t ask people to hold your mail if you don’t plan on coming back to get it.  Our P.I. says he needs three things from you – a picture of Tom, his Social Security Number, and his bank account number so we can check and see if he made any unusual withdrawals.  Do you have those?”

“Of course, I have a picture,” Rose said.  “And I know Tom’s Social Security number.  But how in the world am I going to get the number of his bank account?  Bernie’s so furious with me now that she’ll hardly even talk to me.  There’s no way she’s going to give me that sort of information.”

“Well, you’re going to have to find some way to get it,” Chad told her.  “And it’s got to be done in the morning, because then Bernie’s tossing us out, and after that there won’t be any other opportunity.”

That night, Rose slept with Sally’s stick doll under her pillow.  She did so both because her dear grandchild had given it to her and because, tonight in particular, she needed every bit of help she could get to keep the nightmares at bay.

 

……………………………………………………………………………

 

As Rose sought sleep following a day of emotional chaos, Diana Harris’s daughter, Christine, did so also, but like Rose, she too had trouble quieting her mind. Having learned that her mother's case was being reactivated, she found herself reliving scenes from the past that seemed as fresh that night as they had been back in 1981, when Diana had brought her children to Big Pine Key.

Although Diana appeared much younger than her 27 years, she had led a difficult life.  After an abusive marriage that ended in divorce, she had witnessed her brother shoot himself in the mouth.  She had attempted to self-medicate by smoking marijuana, but that had done little to erase the memory of her brother’s suicide.  Finally, in a desperate attempt to shake herself free from the gristly vision, she had moved to the Florida Keys with her two small children and worked at the No Name Pub and Sugarloaf Lodge.

Christine’s memories of that summer in Florida were happy ones.  She remembered her mother as affectionate and caring, a woman who worked hard but always made time for her children.  Christine vividly recalled the three of them romping on the beach together—the laughter they’d shared when a crab pinched her mother’s toe -- the songs her mother sang to them and the wonderful meals she prepared.

But, as much as she doted on her children, Diana was lonely for adult companionship and soon found another boyfriend.  Gary Argenzio was not a good choice.  An ex-convict, he was the caretaker of a “party house,” owned by attorney Mitchell Denker, who had struck up a friendship with Argenzio in the late ‘70s.  

The party house, which was Denker’s second residence, was enclosed by a wall and protected by guard dogs, and some of the people who partied there were police officers.  In that atmosphere, Diana was introduced to drugs far more insidious than pot.  She was also introduced to Argenzio’s and Denker’s friend, Mark Ripin, who was married to a charming young woman named “Bernie.”  When the two women met,Diana proudly showed Bernie photos of her children.  Bernie, who was pregnant with her own first child, seemed sympathetic to Diana’s maternal feelings.

In June of 1981, Christine and her brother flew back to Michigan to spend the summer with their father.  When Diana kissed them goodbye at the airport, she told them that she would see them in August after attending her sister's wedding in Illinois.  Her plan was to continue on from there to Michigan to pick up the children and return with them to Florida.

In mid-July, she talked with her mother by phone to confirm her plan to attend that wedding.

But she did not do so.

In late July, Diana placed a phone call to a friend in Michigan from a hot tub at Mitchell Denker’s party house.  She nervously told the friend that a big drug drop off was scheduled, the seven guard dogs were out, and that she was afraid the phone she was using might be tapped. She said she was scared.

Nobody ever saw or heard from her again, and none of her friends from the party house reported her missing.