The headline screamed: "Three women vanish."
It happened June 7, 1992.
Exactly five years later, that's all we know. Three women vanished.
Their cars in the driveway, purses, cigarettes and prescription medicines in the house. A Yorkshire terrier left behind.
No clues, no witnesses, no better off now than five years ago.
Unsettling, says Sgt. Kevin Routh. "But what exactly can you do when you feel like you've done whatever is possible?" asks Routh, a patrol officer five years ago who now heads the case.
The abductions are as bewildering by national standards as by local ones, said FBI officials who have helped police try to solve it.
The Bureau of Justice Statistics can find no other reported instance in its database of three people vanishing at once into nothingness, no other case even glancingly similar to Springfield's three missing women.
"It's a sad case," said Springfield FBI spokesman Tom Den Ouden. "There's psychological baggage we all carry."
Sgt. Dana Carrington worked full time on the case for the first eight months.
"Every time the case is mentioned, it all comes flooding back to me," he says. "The frustration is gone primarily because of the time. The bad feelings for the families ... that never goes away."
Nothing investigators have done gives closure to the families of Stacy McCall, Suzie Streeter and Suzie's mother, Sherrill Levitt. Relatives say closure won't come until they have bodies to bury. Or a suspect convicted in court.
Today, the families will keep memories alive by dedicating a granite bench in Phelps Grove Park. It serves as a reminder of the women, a reminder to never stop searching.
For Stacy's mom, Janis McCall, the bench will be a place "I can go and reflect and talk to God about Stacy in a special place."
Streeter and McCall, then 19 and 18 respectively, graduated from Kickapoo High School the day before they disappeared. Levitt, then 47, was at the graduation. That's the last time she was seen.
On the night of June 6, the two teen-agers - longtime friends - attended a graduation/birthday party in Battlefield. They left to spend the night at Levitt's house about 2 a.m. A few hours after sunrise, friends showed up looking for them for a planned trip to White Water in Branson. Inside Levitt's tidy, one-story home at 1717 E. Delmar St., beds looked slept in.
Nothing seemed out of place, nothing but a shattered front porch light.
Investigators have scrambled to follow any of the 4,700 leads that offer any promise. Their file is more than 100 leads thick just with psychic tips.
Despite a reward of more than $100,000, no one with key information has come forward.
Investigators say they have a group of suspects, but Routh won't say more. Two highly investigated men, both now in state prisons, still haven't been ruled out.
The key is simple: Someone must spill what he or she knows.
"I don't feel three women can be abducted out of a house and no one know anything about it," Routh said.
Years of ups and downs
For the families, it's easy to get frustrated. They keep hearing police say: "We're working on it."
They hear about leads, only to watch them fizzle. They've heard about suspects and have watched one of them - Texas inmate Robert Cox - discuss the case with reporters.
The interview made at least one family member's "blood run cold."
Levitt's uncle, Cliff Williams of Marshfield, says he's glad police have at least eliminated suspects.
"If you've said it couldn't be that one and it couldn't be this one, then that's progress, isn't it?" he asks.
Levitt's sister Debbie Schwartz used to call police regularly for updates. Not anymore. "Too many years of ups and downs," she says.
Janis McCall, Stacy's mom, meets with police every Wednesday.
"If someone here knows something and has held out for five years, I'm so sorry for them," McCall says. "Because they'll never be able to meet God or anyone until they let out information about our daughter."
Two inmates questioned
Of the thousands of calls police have taken on the three women, hundreds of them have been about Cox, the Texas inmate.
Others have involved Steven Eugene Garrison.
Police have pursued leads on both men just in the past six months.
Cox, 37, didn't surface publicly as a suspect until early last year. When he did, police waffled on his relevance.
Today, they still will not talk specifics on Cox. But investigators have remained interested in him - perhaps more so than anyone else.
A few months ago, for the second time in a year, three detectives interviewed Cox in the Texas prison where he is serving a 30-year sentence for armed robbery.
For the first time, they read him his rights. They also tried to videotape the interview. Cox refused.
"I'm tired of the harassment I have received because of my association to this case," he says.
Cox considered the police request to take a lie detector test, but after looking at the questions, some of which "were not appropriate," he refused.
Disappointed, detectives left Cox with a final question - "Where are the bodies?" - and a hint they might once again return to talk.
Cox, like Garrison, believes police lost the chance to answer that question a long time ago.
Garrison is serving 40 years in prison for raping, sodomizing and terrorizing a female Springfield college student in the summer of 1993.
After tracking him and several associates almost exclusively for more than a year, police have since backed off Garrison. But not all the way off. They last approached him last summer. Six months ago, investigators looked to Colorado for information on Garrison, who is in a Missouri prison.
"They've never let up on me," Garrison says.
Will the case be solved?
In the early years of the investigations, detectives searched for the women throughout the Ozarks.
But when the months turned to years and the years started adding up, reality indicated the women would probably not be found alive. Police say that if such crimes aren't solved within the first year, then the next likelihood is after 13 to 15 years, when key players start aging and guilt overwhelms them.
Sgt. Mark Webb, an original investigator, acknowledges his doubt that the case will ever be solved. The past five years of no answers have taken a toll on investigators, along with those closest to the women.
"It's just like `Hey, what could we have done differently? Did we miss something? Would another route have given us a solution?' You will always have to sit there with those questions and that will haunt you," Webb says.
Levitt's sister confronted the unlikely probability of solving the case six months after the vanishings.
"As far as I'm concerned, I felt they wouldn't be found alive for a long time," Schwartz says. "It was a dramatic time giving up that last hope that they'd be found alive."
The McCalls cling to hope. Until bodies are found, in their minds, Stacy is alive.
Routh seems less optimistic. But he won't say publicly he believes they are dead. He'll only say that eventually people will know what happened five years ago today.
"I have no doubt that one day this case will be solved," Routh says. "I just don't know when."
Posters fade, but mystery remains vivid
On bulletin boards and store windows around Springfield, the 8Ï- by 11-inch posters remain. Three women are frozen in photographs from a happier day, a day before June 7, 1992, when Sherrill Levitt, Susie Streeter and Stacy McCall took on their collective, tragic identity.
It's good the posters are still there. They may be fading and tattered. They may hardly be noticed, in the way that things we see every day like trees, grass, family are hardly noticed because we're so accustomed to them. Or in the way anyone who has suffered a serious injury gets on with life and lets the scar fade from thought.
The posters have become our scar, a subtle, back-of-the-mind reminder of the day that changed this community when three women, two of them fresh from high school graduation, disappeared without a trace.
Their fate remains unknown, and the fear that enveloped this community has long since faded. Most people returned to life as it had been before June 7, 1992: Women again jog alone in their neighborhoods; mothers no longer insist on taking their teen sons to baseball practice; high school graduation parties again spill from one house to another.
For most of us, fears and worries faded with the posters - and would be completely gone if the posters didn't now and then remind us of this befuddling mystery. For their family and friends and the police, it will always be much more. On this fifth anniversary, our prayers belong to them.
Massive search effort yields a trail of false leads
Once-huge hunt dwindles to occasional tips
What began as an enormous, scorched-earth search for the missing women has withered today to almost nothing.
In the days after the women first vanished, more than 30 investigators were assigned to the case.
They searched: dozens of remote areas in Springfield, Greene County, across the Ozarks.
They contacted: police agencies in the Southwest, along the Canadian border, in Mexico and in Germany.
They listened: to psychics with vague leads, to rumors about white slavery, to talk-show speculation about local bad guys.
They posted: a mobile command headquarters at 1717 E. Delmar St., where the women were last seen; and a green van in front of the police station. Witnesses recalled seeing such a van near the house on Delmar.
Local, state and federal officers investigated more than 4,700 leads, some as indistinct as "They're with a guy named Jones in Las Vegas."
·The phones at police headquarters occasionally ring with tips. In the past year police have received 108 leads.
·There is no full-time officer assigned to the vanishing of Sherrill Levitt, Suzie Streeter and Stacy McCall.
Robert C. Cox
Robert C. Cox has been looked at as closely as any suspect in the missing women case.
A 1977 Parkview High School graduate, Cox was in Springfield when the women vanished.
Police won't talk specifics about Cox. But they remain keenly interested in what he may know.
A few months ago, for the second time in a year, three detectives traveled to the Texas prison where Cox is serving a 30-year prison sentence for armed robbery.
They went in hopes of a confession. They left with nothing of the sort - only tidbits.
Having walked away from Florida's death row - he was convicted of killing a woman, but had his conviction and sentence overturned on appeal - Cox knows how to play cat-and-mouse with police and the media.
In recent letters to the News-Leader, Cox admits he persuaded his former Springfield girlfriend to lie about his whereabouts on the morning the women were taken.
The girlfriend, who has not been identified, told a Greene County grand jury last year she did not go to church with Cox as she had initially told police, "but was covering for me because I had called her and asked her to do that for me," Cox wrote.
"Obviously (police) were concerned about this minor detail."
Police won't comment about Cox's statements.
Cox said police left him with one last question: "Where are the bodies?"
Families can declare women dead
Relatives of two of the missing are expected to start the process - but not the McCalls.
Starting today, the justice system can make official what many people already believe: The three missing women are dead.
Missouri courts can declare someone dead after five years missing without a trace. And it seems likely that the family of Sherrill Levitt and her daughter, Suzie Streeter, will eventually ask a Greene County probate judge to make a "legal presumption of death," as state law terms it.
Relatives of Levitt and Streeter say they expect to file such a petition in the future.
Don't expect Stacy McCall's parents, however, to join in the agonizing call.
"We're not declaring our daughter dead. Ever," says her mother, Janis McCall. "We will not declare her dead until they find her remains."
But neither will the McCalls fight the Levitt-Streeter family in their expected court petition.
"They have to do what they have to do," Janis McCall says.
Declaring someone dead is not as simple as walking into a courtroom and beseeching a judge:
·Survivors must file a petition in probate court. Commissioner Carol Taylor Aiken then advertises the hearing in a newspaper for four consecutive weeks.
·"At the hearing," according to the law, "the court shall receive such legal evidence as shall be offered, for the purpose of ascertaining whether the presumption of death is established; and no person shall be disqualified to testify by ... reason of his or her interest in the estate of the person supposed to be dead."
·If Aiken finds there's a reason to presume the missing person is dead, she'll make the declaration - and then place another set of newspaper ads for four consecutive weeks.
And then, another twist: "Such notice," according to the law, "shall require the supposed decedent, if alive, or any other person for him, to produce ... within 12 weeks from the date of the last publication, satisfactory evidence of the fact that he is still living."
Barring such a surprise announcement, Aiken's decision would stand, and the Levitt-Streeter family would be able to claim whatever estate remains.
Details of what the missing women left behind won't be revealed until court papers are filed.
"It's not a complex procedure," Aiken says of the law.
But it is a wrenching process, says Rolland Comstock, a Springfield probate lawyer.
"I can't put myself in the shoes of the parents of those gals who vanished," Comstock says; emotions are sure to be raw at the hearing.
"But I would think that there might be some kind of psychological closure, some kind of black-and-white determination."
"Whenever application shall be made to any probate division for letters of administration upon the estate of any person supposed to be dead, because of the absence of such person for five consecutive years ... then said court shall cause a notice (to be) published in a newspaper once a week for four consecutive weeks, setting forth the fact that such application has been made, together with notice that on a day certain ... the court will hear evidence concerning the alleged absence of the supposed decedent, and the circumstances and duration thereof. ..."
CLOSER LOOK: CLOSER LOOK: VOICES OF LIVES INTERRUPTED CLOSER LOOK: VOICES OF LIVES INTERRUPTED
Family and close friends of the three missing women have lived lives in suspension for the past five years. Their grieving is unfinished, yet their hope dims with time.
Bench a thank you and a memorial
The families of Springfield's three missing women wanted to thank the community for years of support.
And that thank you has become a granite park bench to be dedicated at 4 p.m. today in Phelps Grove Park.
The bench will be part of the Victims Memorial Garden inside the park.
Today's ceremony is a celebration of the lives of Stacy McCall, Suzie Streeter and Suzie's mother, Sherrill Levitt, family members say.
"It's to say, `You're not forgotten, and you never will be,'" says Debbie Schwartz, Levitt's sister and Streeter's aunt from Seattle.
For Janis McCall, the bench will be a special place for her to go and think about her daughter Stacy.
She hopes the bench becomes a special place for other people, too.
"I want all victims to be able to use the bench and sit there and think about anything they want to," McCall says.
Dedicated relative dies too soon
Missing from today's memorial ceremony is Sherrill Levitt's dad and Suzie Streeter's grandpa, Jim Williams.
He died nearly three weeks ago at his home in Washington state. He was 75.
"He was deeply involved in this memorial," says Cliff Williams, Jim's older brother who lives in Marshfield.
Jim Williams already had hotel reservations for this weekend's memorial dedication at Phelps Grove Park.
He apparently helped pay for the granite bench.
And he was dedicated to making sure no one forgets his daughter, granddaughter and Stacy McCall.
He visited Springfield at least twice a year for the past five because he wanted to stay updated on the case, his brother says.
He wanted to know what investigators knew and what they didn't know.
And when he died, the mystery remained. That's something his other daughter, Debbie Schwartz, often thinks about.
"When he died, I thought, well now he knows," Schwartz says. "But maybe he doesn't. The Bible says there's no pain or tears in heaven."
Levitt's boss keeps poster in salon
Joe Tate was Sherrill Levitt's boss at New Attitudes Hair Salon.
"We still have our (missing-women) poster, right here in our window.
"It's kind of aged and water-spotted and everything else, but we've still got it.
"We've had several people stop in, stick their heads in and say, `Hey, we're glad it's still up.'
"I can't dispose of it. I can't do anything else with it. So every time the window cleaner comes in and finishes work, it goes back up again.
"I'll never forget it. In some ways it seems like a long, long time. In others, it's just like yesterday.
"I think people still remember. They may not talk about it every day, but it's something they certainly won't forget."
Today, the granite park bench in the southeast corner of Phelps Grove Park likely holds more than a half-dozen drying roses.
Three of them are yellow, signifying hope. Four are pink in honor of friendship.
All of them a reminder of three women who vanished five years ago Saturday, leaving behind unanswered questions and undying heartache.
Those roses were placed beneath the photos of Stacy McCall, Suzie Streeter and Suzie's mom, Sherrill Levitt. As the families of the three women dedicated the park bench Saturday in their memory and celebration of their lives, relatives made a promise:
The three women, whose smiles jumped from the photos resting on the bench, will never be forgotten.
The Rev. Gary Stratman, of First and Calvary Presbyterian Church, where Stacy's family attends services, said Saturday was a time to give thanks.
"For the time together, the smiles, the love," he told more than 250 onlookers at the 4 p.m. ceremony. "For all in them that made others love them."
Levitt's son, Bartt Streeter, remembers his mom's ability to make everyone laugh. He won't forget Suzie's beautiful young face, which had just blossomed into that of a young woman.
The McCalls remember Stacy's naivete, kindness and desire to do anything for anyone.
While the families wiped tears away because of the loss and gnawing questions, they also laughed at the memories.
Others, the friends and Springfield residents constantly haunted by the vanishings, prayed and vowed to always remember.
Three of the pink roses were delivered by Lynne and Don Hasch, parents of Cheryl Feeney, who was killed two years ago in her suburban Springfield home along with her two young children. The other pink rose was from Jacky Nowak, mother of Michelle Winter, a Springfield girl murdered in 1995, two weeks before her 13th birthday.
The two families were reminders that victims grieve together.
"There's a lot of emotion in the air, that's for sure," said Sgt. Kevin Routh, who now heads the missing women's investigation. Routh was one of several Springfield police officers, sergeants and captains at the ceremony.
Like others, they can't, and won't, forget.
A former detective, David Asher, who headed the case in the early days, was there as a friend. He left the department more than 2Ï years ago, but never left the case behind. Not mentally, anyway.
"I think about it every day," said Asher, tears in his eyes. "I frequently wake up and think I'm going to hear something today."
But still no word. Investigators still don't know what happened June 7, 1992. Stacy had spent the night with Suzie, the two girls having graduated high school just hours before.
The teens returned to Suzie's house around 2:30 a.m. Several hours later, friends walked into an empty house at 1717 E. Delmar St.
The beds looked slept in. Three purses, cigarettes and needed medication left behind.
Though Saturday was meant as a celebration, it was hard not to see the pain.
Families say they can't help but pray for a missing piece to the puzzle.
"It hurts so bad to remember," said Janis McCall. "It hurts."
Streeter and his mother's friends feel it, too.
"I'm still pretty angry," Streeter said. "We don't have answers."
Valera Bassett said it's tough not seeing Levitt, one of her closest friends. The two got married around the same time, raised their children together.
They planned to share the joys of grandchildren together. Now she lives the joy alone.
"I'd like to put an end to this with a perpetrator behind bars, with a confession," Bassett said.
But until that happens or until the families have bodies to bury, there will never be closure.
There will only be the pictures and memories and undying love.
And now, there will be a park bench in the southeast corner of Phelps Grove Park. It sits inside the Victims Memorial Garden, where an angel stands, watching over all victims.
The words on the bench read:
"What words can one say when loved ones are taken away ... know that you are loved."
Stacy's mom looks out for grads
Janis McCall hopes other young people will celebrate at Project Graduation.
As thousands of Springfield seniors turn their tassels this weekend, proud parents will look on with hopes and tears.
Janis McCall remembers the tassel, the hopes and the tears. How could she forget? It's the last time she saw or heard from her daughter, Stacy.
Just hours after Stacy's graduation in 1992 she was a smiling 18-year-old who was headed out for a night of fun with her friends.
She hadn't signed up for Project Graduation a week earlier, which was Kickapoo's deadline at the time, so she decided to go to a birthday/graduation party at a friend's house in Battlefield. When her worried mother hadn't heard from the usually reliable Stacy by the next afternoon, she alerted police.
Her daughter Stacy, Stacy's friend Suzie Streeter and Suzie's mom, Sherrill Levitt, were missing. And still are.
Now Janis McCall is spreading the word, through televised public service announcements, that the nonalcoholic graduation parties are the way to have a safe and fun night.
"Stacy decided that night that she wanted to go (to Project Graduation), but it was too late," McCall said. "We can't say they wouldn't have disappeared if they went to Project Graduation because we don't know. But I know if they had the opportunity, they would have gone."
At that time, only some Springfield schools let seniors sign up for the event right up to graduation day. Now all schools do.
And this year, for the first time, Janis McCall is pushing the event. Everett Isaacs, vice principal of Hillcrest High School, who helped organize the public service announcement campaign, said McCall helps people realize the importance of Project Graduation.
"I think it's really made people think," Isaacs said. "What we wanted to strive for is for parents to think, too."
Watching Springfield teens graduate is just as hard for McCall, her husband, Stu, and other family members now as it was last year and the year before and the year before that. Janis sees their caps and gowns and hopes for the future. She sees, and imagines, everything Stacy has missed.
"We've had a wedding without our daughter, we've had graduation without her," McCall says. "And now we are having a baby. Stacy would have loved being an aunt."
McCall's oldest daughter, Lisa, is expecting a child in July. And her daughter Meredith graduated from Southwest Missouri State University last year.
Also, in the past five years, Stacy's parents have founded One Missing Link, a support group for other families of missing people. The group continues to grow, and the McCalls lend their shoulders to any family that needs them.
Janis McCall says she knows life goes on, but it's with a constant void.
"No matter how many places you set at the table or how close together you sit, there's still someone missing," McCall says.
She talks of when her youngest daughter will return. Stacy's room is ready for her, complete with shelves of new angels that her mom started collecting when she vanished.
Her white cocker spaniel - a graduation present Stacy got a week before commencement - is waiting.
And her parents insist they'll never give up hope.
Her words about Project Graduation are moving: "For years I've thought about Project Graduation," she says in the televised announcement. "I hope you do, too."
REFLECTIONS ON THE CASE
The memories may be growing distant, but the fate of the missing women - Sherrill Levitt, Suzie Streeter and Stacy McCall - has not been forgotten by the community.
"It's amazing that nobody has ever found a trace of them. I remember reading about it. I thought maybe they might have just gone off for the weekend and they'd show up the following week. But after a week's time, I said, `No, there's something wrong.' I never realized they'd never be found."
"(It was) right after graduation. My grandson graduated the year before over there. I thought they would find them or their bodies, or something. If you were their parents, how would you feel? You would hold out hope, but after five years ... that's a long time."
"I had no clue it would be this long. I figured they would find out something by now. I still see a few posters every now and then. They used to be everywhere. I'm sure there's hope. But I don't know, man. You've always got to have some hope. I don't think they can ever say, `Give up.'"
"If you don't talk about it, no one listens to it, you can forget it. Out of sight, out of mind. I mean, it's there, everybody knows it's there, but if you don't talk about it, if it's not brought up, people soon forget it. It's the responsibility of every individual to not forget about it, to make sure that everybody remembers. Like the bombing. No one forgets the anniversary every year."
"What did I think when it first happened? Young people just graduated, probably out of town, just taken off and done something exciting. When we graduated, we took off to the lake and went catfishing for a couple of days. I thought the next day or two they would turn up. Then of course it went for a week, then two weeks, and then, as everything else goes, once it gets to two-three weeks, you think, `They're not going to find them.'
"Would it help to find them? Absolutely. From the parents on down, the common day-to-day person, we all want to know. We all have that in the back of our mind: We want to know what happened. We're all curiosity seekers. We all want to know how it turns out."
Blood is manager of the Smitty's store on Glenstone, near St. Louis: "We had the posters on our grocery bags for probably a year or so. Stacy's mother has One Missing Link, and we usually do a golf tournament that we sponsor, with the proceeds going to One Missing Link.
"It's real hard to understand why it happened. I can't imagine it. We still care. We hope - I hope - that something turns up to clear it up."