TWO GONE MISSING –

THE MISSING PERSONS CASES OF TOM STUMP AND DIANA HARRIS

(a work in progress)

 

 

EXCERPT FROM END OF CHAPTER THREE

 

----- To Rose’s relief, the search for Tom’s body proved fruitless.  No scent of rotted flesh had arisen from the undergrowth.  No gun had been found and no pail that a gun had been hidden in.  Rose knew the reprieve was a brief one.  There would be more searches, for the swampland extended far beyond Tom’s property, but, at least for the moment, she had not been deprived of all hope that her son might still be alive.

Bonnie was extremely concerned that Tom might return home to an empty house, while she and her mother and sister were at Bernie’s family reunion.  So, Bernie announced that a woman friend and her husband would be keeping an eye on the place in case Tom returned.  Tom’s truck would be there, and his wallet would be left on the kitchen table, along with a note welcoming him home.  She also left her friend the keys to Tom’s truck.

“Bonnie, if Tom comes back, everything will be okay,” Bernie assured her older daughter.

On Sunday, after Bernie and the girls had left for the reunion,  Rose and Chad met with their private investigator, and Rose supplied him with the personal items he had asked for.  Even without those, the detective had been busy and had gleaned a surprising amount of information about the events of Tom’s final morning.  At 6:30 am., Tom had used his credit card to fill his pick-up truck with gas, which seemed an odd thing to do at that hour of the morning, considering he was never to use that truck again.  Then, he had returned to the house, and Scott had called from New Mexico to ask him to transfer some money from their business account to Scoff’s personal account.  Tom had completed that bank transaction at 10 a.m.  Then, he had gone to the Post Office to stop the mail.

“Those aren’t typical actions for a man who is contemplating suicide,” the investigator commented.

“There’s something else that’s been bothering me,” Chad told him.  “This may mean nothing, but one of Tom’s boots is missing.  Those boots are comparatively new, but it’s clear Tom’s worn them, because there’s dried mud on the sole of the remaining boot.  Bernie says Tom always kept his boots in his work room, and that’s where he was when Bonnie came home from her friend’s house.  Bonnie said she found him there, lacing up his boots.”

There was a long moment of silence as Rose and the detective processed that information.

“Are you speculating that Tom was abducted while he was putting his boots on?” the detective asked, frowning.

“It does sound crazy,” Chad admitted.  “Especially since Bonnie said she saw him walk into the woods.  He couldn’t have done that wearing only one boot, unless he was hopping on one foot.  But what other explanation is there?  His old pair was there in the room.  I wore those during the search.  But just one boot from his newer pair.  If Tom’s body is found, I think he’ll be wearing one boot.”

“There’s another possibility,” the investigator said thoughtfully.  “If Tom was

murdered after he entered the woods, and the killer wanted to make it appear to be a

suicide, he might have taken a boot from Tom’s work room to plant at the edge of a

swamp or on one of the beaches, to give the impression that Tom’s body was immersed in water and the boot had floated to the surface.  If that was the plan, then you foiled it by discovering the second boot.”

Rose felt sick to her stomach. “You seem so sure that Tom’s dead!”

‘1’m not sure of anything,” the detective told her more gently.  “I’m open to all possibilities and hope for the best.  Nothing would make me happier than to learn that your son walked off into the sunset with a new lady friend.  But nothing’s come up to suggest that.  Bernie told detectives that Tom’s never looked at another woman and spent all his free time at home with her and the children.  If the worst is true, and he is dead, I doubt that it was suicide.  Is there anyone you can think of who had a reason to want Tom dead?”

“I can’t think of a soul,” Rose said immediately.  She couldn’t begin to focus her mind in that direction.

“What about the wife?  A victim’s spouse or lover is always the first suspect.  Bernie wanted a divorce, and she says Tom wouldn’t cooperate.  That might be considered a motive, though it’s sort of a weak one.”

“And it’s not exactly true,” Chad said.  “Tom was going to give her a divorce.  The last time I talked with him, he said he thought it was inevitable.  He’d have liked to have kept the family together for the kids’ sake, but he didn’t have much hope that was going to happen.  Bernie’s already been through two divorces.  She’s an old hand at the process.  She didn’t bump off those other guys, so why start with Tom?”

“Perhaps he was making demands that ‘those other guys’ didn’t make?” the investigator suggested, playing Devil’s Advocate.  “You told me about that ‘code of the hills’ statement he made the last time he discovered she was cheating on him.”

Chad considered that idea for a moment.  “Tom would have wanted the house, since he built it himself and even drew up the plans for it.  And he was going to try to get custody of the children.  He might not have been successful, but the court proceedings would have been messy, especially if he tried to prove Bernie was having an affair.  Bernie didn’t have children by her first husband, so that wasn’t an issue in their divorce, and Mark didn’t want custody of Bonnie.  But, even if Tom couldn’t legally get custody of his stepdaughter, he would have fought like a tiger when it came to keeping Sally.”

“Mark Ripin is an interesting character,” the investigator said.  “I hate to add to your worries, but I ran a background check on him and discovered that he’s an ex-convict. [1]  He’s served time in prison for armed robbery and been involved with some pretty shady characters.  Does his daughter still keep in touch with him?”

“Oh, yes,” Rose said. “Bonnie’s last name was legally changed to ‘Stump,’ but Mark wouldn’t sign the papers to permit Tom to adopt her.  I remember how excited Bonnie was when they did the name change, and I sent her an ID. bracelet with ‘Bonnie Stump’ on it.  She calls Tom ‘Daddy Tom,’ and calls Mark ‘Daddy Mark.’  Mark was the first person Bonnie phoned after Tom went missing.  She says he drove up from Key West that very afternoon, although Bernie apparently didn’t see him.  She doesn’t recall him coming there until days later.”

“So Bernie and Mark are still on good terms?”

“Yes, definitely,” Rose said.  “Bernie considers Mark one of her very best friends.  But I can’t think of any reason for Mark to want to harm Tom.  It’s not like they were rivals or anything.  Tom treated Mark well, and he was always welcome to see Bonnie whenever he wanted to, even though he didn’t pay child support.”

“Why the hell doesn’t he pay child support?” the investigator asked them.  “What does Mark Ripin do for a living?”

Neither could come up with an answer.

“According to Bonnie, he just sort of drifts,” Rose said finally.  “He doesn’t have a regular job, he just does this or that to eke out a living. [2] He’s out of the country a lot, going back and forth to Thailand.”

The investigator did not seem surprised by that statement.

“I’d be interested in knowing the purpose of those trips,” he said.  “Mark has a questionable history.  I know for a fact that he used to hang out at a party house on Big Pine Key where a lot of drug stuff went on.  What about Tom and Bernie?  Does either have a drug problem?”

“Both of them used to,” Rose admitted reluctantly.  “When Tom was in his twenties, back in Ohio, he and some friends were arrested for selling marijuana.  Charges were dropped, but he probably continued smoking it, although, of course, he never did it in front of us.  Bernie was into cocaine when Tom first met her, but I’d like to think that both of them got their acts together.  Still, as Bernie told the detective from the sheriff’s office, my husband and I haven’t seen much of Tom since he moved to Florida, and we’ve seen even less of Bernie, so we really don’t know if either or both are still using.”

“Drug operations are big business in the Keys,” the investigator told her.  “I’m not talking about people growing pot in their backyards;  I’m talking about a major industry.  Florida is a hub for drug imports and a key marijuana and cocaine distribution center for the whole United States.  Local law enforcement tends to ignore that, because it’s too much for them to deal with, and it’s dangerous territory.  It’s also a good source of income for crooked cops, who get paid big money to keep their eyes closed.  The only people who take a real interest are the feds.  At one point the corruption at the local level got so bad that the Key West Police Department was declared a criminal enterprise under the RICO statute.  People who are threats to those drug operations don’t last long.”

“We’ve no reason to think that Tom was a whistle-blower,” Rose objected.  “Just because he used to smoke pot and possibly still does, doesn’t mean he has information about major drug activities.”

“There’s no way to know what he may have found out about,” the detective said.  “He must have known the identities of Bernie’s cocaine suppliers, even if she’s now stopped using.  And he may have learned about other things from Mark Ripin, especially in regard to the people at that party house.  And now your son has disappeared into nowhere, and the only people who are looking for him are his neighbors.  Can you tell me why the mysterious disappearance of a local businessman hasn’t been reported in the news?”

“I think it was probably on the radio yesterday,” Chad said.  “Bill Becker, the news director at a radio station in Key West, came by the house yesterday morning and watched the search party assemble.  I assumed he was planning to do a story about it.”

“Becker didn’t do a story,” the investigator told them.  “Nobody’s ever done a story. The public has no idea that Tom Stump is missing.  Someone with clout has apparently thrown up a roadblock.  The media has backed off and won’t touch this with a stick.” [3]

 

…………………………………………………………………………………………….

 

On August 4, 1981, Diana Harris's mother filed a missing person’s report on Diana in Owosso, Michigan.  She filed a second report  in Monroe County, Florida.  No one responded with news about Diana.  It seemed that the fragile young woman had dropped off the face of the earth.

Diana’s mother then contacted Mitchell Denker, the attorney who owned the party house.  Denker stated that, one week after Diana disappeared, her boyfriend, Gary Argenzio, Denker’s grounds keeper, had stolen a boat and fled to Mexico. He also mentioned that Diana’s friend, Donna Pinder, who was out of town when that happened, had her car stolen while she was gone.  He said it was found, abandoned on a side road, and returned to her. The implication was that Argenzio had murdered Diana and used Pinder’s car to transport her body to the boat.

In July 1982, Argenzio was arrested in Mexico, brought back to the States, and tried under the name “Gary Vincento.”  He was subsequently sentenced to five years for stealing the boat. Mitchell Denker’s nephew, Michael Gilbert, who was a member of Denker’s law firm, defended Argenzio pro bono.  Mark Ripin testified in Argenzio’s behalf.

The years that followed were extremely traumatic for Christine.  She and her brother were shuttled back and forth between relatives, one of whom was physically abusive, and the children eventually were separated. Sent to live with relatives out of state, in an effort to keep her safe from further abuse, Christine would lie in bed at night, both missing her brother and grieving for the mother who had been the center of both their lives.

 The year Christine turned 15, she sold enough of her possessions to buy a plane ticket to Miami and launched a personal search for her missing mother.  Her grandmother had advised her not to go to the Monroe County Sheriff’s Office, as they had not been cooperative, and urged her, instead, to contact the prosecutor who had put Gary Argenzio in prison.

That proved to be excellent advice, as the prosecutor was kind and receptive to the distraught teenager and supplied all the information that was currently available.   Christine learned about Gary Argenzio’s many aliases, his assorted Social Security numbers, and his arrest dates for armed robbery, kidnapping, false imprisonment, lewdness and rape.  The prosecutor agreed that Argenzio was a valid suspect in Diana’s disappearance, but said that there was no proof.

Christine returned from Florida to spend the rest of her teenage years with her grandmother in Michigan, but she knew that her mission had just started.  She was more determined than ever to unearth the truth, even if it took her the rest of her life.

 

 

 

 



[1]  Public records: “Mark Ripin was sentenced to 1 year, 6 months.  Custody began 9-26-79.  Date released 10-18-80.  Offense: robbery w/firearm or d/weapon.”

[2]  Bonnie’s statement to law enforcement, April 5, 1996, in response to the question, “What does your dad (Mark) do for a living?”  “Oh, he – whatever he can find.  He’s not a real big worker.  Kind of does whatever.”

 

Bernie’s statement to law enforcement, April 5, 1996:

“Mark is a rolling stone.  He has very little.  He had no money.  He just works job to job construction … Sometimes Mark would go a year and not see her (Bonnie), sometimes we would see him – we would call him Uncle Buck, Good Time Charlie.”

 

Bernie’s statement, April 30, 2006, submitted for inclusion in TWO GONE MISSING:

“Mark is a skilled building tradesman and a certified EMT.  For you (Rose) to say that he is someone with no apparent means of support (who) came and went when he felt like it was not true then and is not true now.”

 

Mark Ripin’s post on Tom Stump Internet message board, April 26, 2003: 

“Hi, its me Mark Ripin … At the moment I have a successful International Drivers License buissness in Phnom Phen.  I wiil be on theinternet soon.  It’s the best license on the market in the world.”

[3]  Bernie’s statement, April 30, 2006, submitted for inclusion in TWO GONE MISSING:

“A news story was not considered initially because either Tom committed suicide (and his body would eventually be found), in which case it would not normally be a news story out of consideration for the family, or he would return, in which case a news story would have been embarrassing for both him and the family … At no time was there ever an attempt by anyone to block such information.”