Answers, then tears after Pernice admits killing wife

More than three years after their daughter vanished, the parents of Renee Pernice finally learned Tuesday what happened.

As they had feared and long suspected, their son-in-law killed her.

Shon Pernice’s attorney revealed in court Tuesday that Shon had argued with Renee in their Northland home on Jan. 2, 2009. Shon hit her once in the head, and she tumbled down a flight of stairs. The fall killed her, the attorney said.

Renee’s mother, Linda Lockwood, cried as Shon Pernice, 39, pleaded guilty to voluntary manslaughter in Clay County Circuit Court.

“The tears come from the sadness of knowing my daughter was murdered,” she said after the hearing, adding that “there was never any doubt” in their minds.

Though happy that Shon Pernice will go to prison, “that will never be enough,” she said, “because there is nothing that can bring our daughter back no matter how much time he will spend.”

After the hearing, authorities said they believe that Shon Pernice put Renee’s body in a trash bag and dumped it in a trash bin in the Northeast area of Kansas City. She ended up in a Shawnee landfill — somewhere within a two-acre area, too large for investigators to search. They expect more details to come out when Pernice is sentenced May 11. He faces 15 years in prison.

Pernice, a former Independence firefighter and National Guardsman, pleaded guilty six days before his trial was to begin on a first-degree murder charge, which carries a life sentence. The jury was to be brought in from St. Charles County, near St. Louis, because of extensive publicity about the case.

After the hearing, Pernice’s attorney said his client made two mistakes: losing his temper in a fight with his wife, and covering up the death.

“He lost his temper and hit her in a way he was aware could cause her death,” Eric Vernon said. “His intent was not to kill her.”

Her family gathered with detectives in a foyer outside the courtroom after the plea. Her parents thanked the detectives for their work, and they hugged. Several detectives and family members brushed away tears as they walked out.

Renee Pernice’s sudden disappearance in January 2009 gripped the Kansas City area. Dozens of volunteers helped scour woods for her body, which authorities never found despite weeks of searching, billboard requests for tips and a $25,000 reward offer.

Renee, 35, enjoyed her job as a nurse, had loving family and no reason to leave, her parents and friends had said when she vanished. It was out of character for her to leave her two sons and stepdaughter for days without contacting family, they said.

Her family last saw her Christmas Eve 2008. On Jan. 3, 2009, a sister noticed she had missed several calls from Renee. When the sister tried to call back, she couldn’t reach her.

The sister then called the Pernice home and was startled when Shon Pernice answered. Renee Pernice had told her family that her husband would be leaving for two weeks of National Guard training and was to move out of the home when he returned. Renee had started divorce proceedings.

Police later found Renee Pernice’s cellphone in the Northeast area.

Within days of her disappearance, police called it suspicious and said they suspected foul play.

Shon Pernice drew suspicion almost immediately when it was revealed he did not report his wife missing until confronted by her family, authorities have said. He also didn’t help volunteers, police and her family search for her in a wooded area near the couple’s home.

After one of the searches, Pernice allegedly went to a Northland bar to pick up a takeout order and asked the bartender to turn the television to local news. When the search story came on, Pernice said the searchers would not find Renee Pernice in those woods.

And days after Renee disappeared, Shon Pernice was seen kissing a woman while gambling at a Northland casino, authorities said at an earlier court hearing. He also listed himself as single on dating websites.

Yet it wasn’t until 17 months after her death that a Clay County grand jury indicted him on a first-degree murder charge.

The Kansas City, North, man also faces charges of felony theft, tampering with witnesses, and endangering the welfare of two of his children — all allegedly tied to him stealing a handgun from a neighbor’s house. Prosecutors said they expect Pernice to plead guilty at his sentencing in May to the two counts of child endangerment. They then will drop the theft and witness tampering charges.

In recent weeks, his lawyers have been trying to get GPS evidence collected after his wife’s disappearance excluded from his trial. His lawyers argued that Kansas City investigators failed to obtain a search warrant to place the GPS device on Pernice’s vehicle. A judge was expected to rule on the matter soon.

For a three-week period in January 2009, five to seven investigators also kept Pernice under 24-hour surveillance.

On one occasion, a detective saw Pernice drive the family minivan to Line Creek Park, more than a mile from the family’s home, where he released his wife’s dog and drove away.

They also monitored him when he attended a candlelight vigil that her family held at a park near their home.

In January 2010, a Clay County judge awarded Renee’s mother guardianship of Renee’s two sons.

Although he was able to get Pernice to plea, Clay County Prosecutor Daniel L. White said he regrets that authorities were unable to locate Renee’s body for the family to bury her.

“That bothers me a great deal,” White said. “It is bittersweet, because I think he deserves more (time) than what he is going to get.”