A purgatory of sorts: Families suffer from the uncertainty
BY NICOLE MARSHALL World Staff Writer
Monday, May 25, 2009
5/25/09 at 3:27 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
Thirty-three people have vanished from Tulsa in the last three decades.
By definition, police classify this core group of cold-case missing persons as "endangered." In most cases, however, investigators say they are likely dead.
"Every year we have two, maybe three cases where we know that a fatality has most likely taken place," Tulsa Police Sgt. Mike Huff said. "But when you have no body or scene, it's like looking for a needle in a haystack."
The victims linger in a purgatory of sorts. Their names are never added to any homicide count. But even years and decades later, their families still post fliers pleading for information that might bring them home. And for decades, the lack of a uniform state and nationwide system to match unidentified remains with missing people has prevented some families from learning that their missing loved one has died.
Hundreds of people are reported missing in Tulsa every year. During 2008, 323 people age 18 or older were reported missing, Detective Margaret Loveall said.
More than 95 percent of missing-persons cases are closed quickly — when the victim is found, Loveall said.
"In a lot of cases, people are just gone for a few days and they don't tell their family, or they are involved in a situation where they are trying to distance themselves from someone they know," she said.
Adult missing-persons cases — and those of children who are missing along with them — are investigated by the Homicide Unit. Missing people younger than 17 are referred to the Exploitation Unit. Most of these youths are categorized as runaways if there is no reason to believe that they were harmed.
In Tulsa, few people remain missing long term. A person of any age who is "missing under circumstances indicating that his/her safety may be in physical danger" is considered endangered, according to the FBI's definition. The chance of finding them alive declines with time, so police must act accordingly.
Maj. Matt Kirkland, commander of the Detective Division, said, "I think it is important to recognize when you have certain criteria present in a missing-persons case, you have to treat that case like a homicide and utilize all of the resources that you have available."
A third of Tulsa's 33 missing-endangered cold cases might have resulted from illegal drugs or domestic problems or a combination, a Tulsa World analysis shows.
"Most of these cases are going to be caused by lifestyle issues, whether it be domestic, drug-related or a transient life they are leading," Loveall said. "The stranger abductions are going to be rare, but they do happen."
Searching for answers
Police believe that drugs led to the disappearance of Karen Heim on Dec. 26, 2006. But Heim hadn't always lived such a risky lifestyle.
"She was a cheerleader, pompom girl, played softball, and all of sudden she got hooked on drugs," her uncle Roy Heim said.
Heim is retired from the Tulsa Police Department after spending many years in the Homicide Unit. Even before his niece's disappearance, he began tracking missing-persons investigations in Oklahoma and compiling them in a database.
"Karen was involved in meth production in Osage County and in Tulsa," he said. "She testified in a federal drug case right before this happened, the spring before it happened. It was a huge case."
Karen Heim, 42, was last seen at residences in the 3400 block of West 48th Street and in Sand Springs.
Her car was found abandoned the next morning in Red River County, Texas. It contained a receipt indicating that it had exited Oklahoma's Indian Nation Turnpike at the Eufaula exit. Her family went to Texas to search for her, but she has not been found.
"I think everyone has given up hope she will be found alive," Heim said.
He believes, however, that "there is a good possibility that she will be found and identified someday."
In at least seven of Tulsa's 33 cold missing-persons cases, the reason the person disappeared remains a mystery. There isn't enough information for police to say why they are gone.
Analysis shows that at least two disappearances, including Lisa Addington's on May 16, 1984, might have been stranger abductions.
Addington attended her bachelorette party at a nightclub near 21st Street and Garnett Road with a group of friends. When her friends left, she decided to stay, and she was never seen again.
"Stranger abductions are harder cases to solve," Loveall said. "When a suspect has some type of relationship with the victim, the connection itself generates leads to follow. With a stranger, it is much more difficult. It is a shot in the dark."
At least two of the missing people, including Alan Soper, who disappeared in 1974, were last known to be traveling with truck drivers.
Soper, 22, graduated from Oklahoma State University and had planned to travel during the summer by working for truck drivers. When he last called his family on June 7, 1974, he said he was in Sacramento, Calif. His wallet and clothing were found near Needles, Calif., in 1977, but he has never been found.
Soper's parents, Juene and Robert Soper, knew within weeks after he left that something was wrong because he didn't call them again, as he had said he would.
"A mother does not give up thinking that your child might be alive," Juene Soper said. "I was determined to learn what happened."
While searching for their son, the Sopers found a note from him that was posted on the bulletin board of a truck stop along Interstate 40 west of Oklahoma City. The note indicated that Soper was seeking a job with a truck driver so he could travel cross-country.
The trail eventually turned cold, and his belongings that were found in California were thrown away before DNA testing became available.
"We just want him found so we could give him a Christian burial," his mother said.
Transitory lifestyles, hitchhiking and truck drivers have been linked to many serial killings.
Last month, the FBI unveiled its Highway Serial Killings Initiative, which includes a database of 500 murder victims found along or near highways, as well as a list of about 200 potential suspects.
The FBI began the initiative after an Oklahoma State Bureau of Investigation analyst saw a pattern of slain women being dumped along the Interstate 40 corridor in Texas, Oklahoma, Arkansas and Mississippi.
The suspects in the FBI's database are predominantly long-haul truck drivers. The mobile nature of the suspects, the lifestyles of the victims, the significant distances involved, and the scarcity of witnesses or forensic evidence make the cases tough to solve.
Unexplained links between missing people make their cases even more mysterious. In Tulsa, two families have each had two members disappear during different years.
Paula Phillips was 26 when she was last seen on Oct. 3, 1991. She left her home about 7 p.m. and said she was going to a store. But detectives say she might have met up with her sister, Londa Phillips, who disappeared in 1992.
Londa Phillips was 22 when she was reported missing by her boyfriend after she failed to arrive at a relative's home.
"Their disappearances could potentially be connected to one another and to drug activity," Loveall said, adding that although detectives have had "persons of interest" in the cases, they never had enough evidence to make an arrest.
In another unusual case, Terrence Haney was 36 when he was last seen leaving a relative's house about 5 p.m. April 2, 2001, to walk about two blocks home. He was never heard from again.
Haney's brother-in-law, Edward Martin, 50, is also on Tulsa's missing-persons list. Martin, known by the nickname "Chicken," was last seen about July 1999. His disappearance was not reported until a few years later, Loveall said.
Martin and Haney disappeared from the same area.
Haney's wife, Corlina Haney, still calls Loveall frequently, hoping to hear some good news. The couple were separated when her husband disappeared, but the last time they talked, they spoke of reuniting.
She believes that "there is more to the story than we know," Loveall said, referring to a potential link between the Martin and Haney cases.
A partial skeleton and some clothing were found in 2006 at an old dump site at 3000 N. Victor Ave. Authorities are investigating whether the remains are either man's and are waiting for DNA results.
If the bones belong to Terrence Haney, his wife feels certain that he was forced into the woods and slain.
"He would not go off in some woods unless it was with someone he knew," she said. "I hope they find whoever did this. That is all I want. I want closure to it."
Nicole Marshall 581-8459
Robert and Juene Soper can cover their table with photos and artifacts related to their son Alan, who has been missing since 1974. JAMES PLUMLEE / Tulsa World
Investigators search for items related to the slaying of Tulsa teenager Cori Baker during a search of a secluded area near 49th West Avenue and the Creek Turnpike on Feb. 14. MIKE SIMONS / Tulsa World