TWO GONE MISSING –
THE MISSING PERSONS CASES OF TOM STUMP AND DIANA HARRIS
(a work in progress)
When the phone rang at on the afternoon of
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
“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,
“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,
even more certainty.
“There’s no way Tom would
ever kill himself,”
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.
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
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
“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,”
“No!” Rose gasped. “
“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,”
“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
“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
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
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.
That night Rose and
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
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?”
“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
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,”
“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
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.”
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
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
“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
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,
“Tomorrow there will be a whole
army of us combing the woods,”
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
“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
“Bartenders tend to hear everything
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.
“I didn’t spend the whole evening
in bars, Mom,”
“Then he really was planning to go on vacation!” Rose exclaimed.
“It sure looks that way,”
“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,”
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.
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
memories of that summer in
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.
June of 1981, Christine and her brother flew back to
In mid-July, she talked with her mother by phone to confirm her plan to attend that wedding.
But she did not do so.
late July, Diana placed a phone call to a friend in
Nobody ever saw or heard from her again, and none of her friends from the party house reported her missing.