Video: Survivors are buffeted by hope, anguish
BY NICOLE MARSHALL World Staff Writer
Monday, May 25, 2009
5/25/09 at 5:20 AM
Read more about Tulsa’s cold-case missing-persons
investigations, watch a video of a woman who sells
pies to fund a reward for information about her
missing daughter, and read the stories in the first
part of the series
Annette Vail vanished without a trace in 1984.
Thirteen years later, her mother held a memorial service for her — even though her body had not been found.
Now 25 years after the disappearance, Vail's mother, Mary Newton Rose, said she was just trying to find some way to deal with the mountain of grief that weighed on her heart.
Like Rose, families of the missing ride a wave of emotions, fluctuating between mourning and hope.
"I was hoping I could get some closure," Rose said. "Of course, when there is no body . I am like any other mother holding out the possibility she may come home.
"I saw a young girl who looked like her outside the grocery store one day. I ran out, and when I realized it was not her I think what is so devastating is you just don't know," she said. "You see a body and you bury a body, and you just come to accept it. It is hard to accept the unknown."
Rose described her daughter, who lived in Tulsa, as bright, outgoing, gifted and well-loved. Vail was 18 when she disappeared.
Vail, who was married, had never been missing before. Rose said her daughter received a large sum of money and some property shortly before her disappearance.
"I clearly remember waiting by the phone on the holidays and her birthday for years, hoping that she would come out of whatever state she might have been in that kept her away and reconnect with her family," she said.
Long-term missing-persons cases can be just as devastating to families as homicides, experts say. Their suffering lingers throughout their lives, said George Adams, project coordinator for the University of North Texas Center for Human Identification.
Families of victims often approach Adams when he speaks across the country about missing-persons cases.
"You don't have to tell me which family member has had a long-term missing case, because they end up having health problems," he said. "You can pick them out. They have financial problems. They have marital problems. It ages them."
Families can be denied life insurance claims or be prevented from selling property when a loved one is missing. When there are bills to pay and children to support, the stresses multiply.
"You may not have even thought about how tragic this is for them, how much pressure is put on these family members," he said. "We have got to have empathy."
Living the nightmare
Edna Pitts begins most days about 4 a.m., baking cobblers, pies and cinnamon rolls in her kitchen. About 8 a.m., she packs them in her car and drives around, trying to sell the baked goods.
"You'd be surprised. Once I explain why I am out there, hardly anyone turns me down," Pitts said.
While making her sales pitch, Pitts points to the picture in her car window of her daughter, Tina Pitts, who disappeared at age 43 in November 2006.
The money she makes from the baked goods goes to a reward fund that was set up to elicit tips about the case.
"But most of all, I just don't want the attention to die down," Pitts said.
She named one of her most popular sellers "Sweet Tina Rolls."
"It's just a nightmare, but at least doing what I am doing keeps me busy," Pitts said.
Children of the missing likely suffer the most. Their young minds have an even harder time trying to understand why their parents are gone, and they tend to blame themselves.
Eamon Henson was 9 when he went home one night in March 1979 after spending time with his father and discovered that his mother, Kathleen Henson, and 17-month-old brother, Royce Henson, were gone.
"When I got inside the house and she was not home, I was immediately panic-stricken. She was always home when I was home, and Royce was gone, too," he said. "I cried myself to sleep. When I woke the next day and they were still not there, it was all I could do to get to the phone and call someone."
He said his mother was involved with a man who was a known drug-trafficker, according to police. Royce is their son.
"I knew what was going on with her and her boyfriend, so I just knew. I started breaking things. I knew I would never see her again," Henson said.
Two days later, his mother's car was found parked awkwardly at Ute Street and Peoria Avenue. Her purse and a diaper bag were inside.
Henson said police initially didn't take his mother's disappearance seriously.
"They came back and said later they were very sorry they didn't act more quickly," he said. "If they had acted more quickly, could they have saved her? That is one of the things that bothered me."
He said the pain of having a parent disappear is almost indescribable.
"As a child, you just don't understand why," he said. "Like most kids, I assumed I did something wrong and she just packed Royce up and left."
Tulsa Police Detective Margaret Loveall recently had new age-progression pictures of Henson's mother and brother created by the National Center for Missing and Exploited Children. That act made Henson feel as if someone still cared.
"I was almost elated to see that someone out there is still making an effort," he said.
Searching for answers
Michelle Skelton grew up sheltered from her parents' lifestyles, but their ultimate fates made her want to be a better person.
Skelton said her parents were never married and had been involved in drugs, so she was raised by her maternal grandmother.
In March 1987, she learned that her mother, Patti Ann Baker, had been killed in Dallas. At that time, she knew only her father's name — Ronald Shelley — but she had no idea that he had disappeared several years earlier in Tulsa and likely was a homicide victim, too.
Shelley, 32, was last seen alive at his apartment near 47th Street and Memorial Drive in December 1981. Police found blood there, but a body was never found.
Shelley's case was profiled in a Feb. 26, 1995, Tulsa World article detailing efforts by police to whittle down missing-persons cases. Although no new information has surfaced about Shelley, the story brought Skelton together with her father's side of her family for the first time.
"Even though I did not know him, I have always had a passion for finding out what happened," she said. "I have a strong desire to see the people who did it get caught.
"It has been a wild ride, my life. It has been very traumatic, but it has made me want to be closer with my own children reach out to people in the community who are on drugs."
When Tatiana Scott's mother disappeared on Valentine's Day in 2006, the teen had to become the head of the household at age 18.
She raised her young siblings, ages 16 and 7, on her own. She is now studying criminal justice at the University of Tulsa and plans to become a prosecutor.
Scott last saw her mother about 11 p.m., when she left with a man.
"That night she said she was returning, but she did not come back," Scott said. "I woke up the next morning, and she had not returned any of my calls."
She called her aunts and uncles, but no one knew where her mother was. Then she called the police.
Sheila Scott's vehicle has never been found. However, in an unexplained twist, records show that someone in Latimer County ran a National Crime Information Center check on its tag on March 31, 2006. Police have never determined who checked on the vehicle or why.
"Mostly what we need is people to come forward," Scott said. "Someone had to have seen something."
WHAT THEY MIGHT LOOK LIKE NOW
Kathleen Henson, 31, and her 17-month-old son, royce,
were last heard from on march 23, 1979. The National Center
for missing and Exploited Children created age-progression
pictures of the two to show what they might look like today.
Edna Pitts makes pies and cinnamon rolls to raise money for a reward for her missing daughter, Tina Pitts. MIKE SIMONS / Tulsa World