25 years later, The Three Missing Women case remains unsolved
In the entryway of a southside bar hangs a tattered missing persons flyer, preserved in its torn and yellowed state by laminate.
Back in the summer of 1992, this flyer was one of thousands that blanketed the Ozarks. They hung in barbershops and grocery stores, gas stations and rest areas, any place where people could see them. Many were a bright yellow then with the word “Missing,” and they implored everyone to help bring home Sherrill Levitt, her daughter Suzie Streeter and friend Stacy McCall.
Today, on what marks a quarter century since the Springfield women disappeared, this flyer inside Coyote’s Adobe Cafe & Bar is one of the few that remain, its faded print proof that this southwest Missouri city hasn’t forgotten.
And Stacy’s mother says she can feel it.
“There are still so many people who know about it,” Janis McCall told The Star. “They come up to me, they talk about them. And it makes me feel good when I know people are still caring.”
It was June 7, 1992, when the three women vanished. The three haven’t been heard from since that day when friends showed up at Levitt’s home on East Delmar Street and found a broken porch light. Little else seemed out of place.
All three of the women’s cars were parked out front. Their purses and keys were inside the small white home. A smoker, Sherrill, 47, had left her cigarettes behind. And Stacy, 18, who battled migraines, hadn’t taken along her medication.
The young women, friends who had graduated from Kickapoo High School the day before, had already gotten ready for bed. Then they, along with Levitt, just disappeared.
A lack of evidence or any real sign of foul play has frustrated a long line of detectives who have taken their turn at trying to solve the mystery.
“How do you wrap your head around three people literally disappearing? With no idea where they went?” said Sgt. Todd King, who started at the police department in 1994 and remembers as a rookie taking reports from people who had information they thought would be helpful. “In a lot of cold cases, you can look back and say this is probably what occurred, you just can’t prove it. With this case, it’s anything goes. Anything could have happened.
“You don’t have anything that says they were abducted, they were harmed. … It’s this big mystery.”
The sergeant now oversees the open investigation, which is assigned to Detective Scott Hill. Hill works the case and follows up on leads as they come in. And they still do, about one or two a month. But anymore, many of them are just rehashes of what came in years ago.
The mystery, too, has worn on the community and residents who back in the 1990s lived through the anxiety and months of constant headlines and newscasts about the case.
Nigel Holderby, now a 44-year-old mother living in Colorado, was Suzie’s best friend at the time of her disappearance.
“We all who love them would love to have answers, would love to know what happened, would love to have them here with us today,” Holderby said. “All over this period of time we have wondered every day and every year. It is mind-blowing to think about, something like that happening.
“People aren’t supposed to just disappear.”
That’s how David Bauer feels. He had owned Coyote’s Adobe Cafe just six months when he promised Janis McCall he wouldn’t take down the missing poster until her daughter came home.
His own daughter was just 3 years old that summer. And he couldn’t help but think then what would happen if he had lost her like McCall had lost Stacy.
“She was in such anguish,” Bauer said. “I kind of felt how she was feeling in her eyes. … It’s burnt into my soul.”
Purses left behind
Stacy’s mother can still see the image of the women’s purses in her mind. They were at the bottom of the steps leading down to Suzie’s room.
So many who lived this case, who have been haunted by it since, have something about the home or that day that replays in their mind. For some it’s the busted porch globe or the fact that the two friends had already gotten ready for bed with their makeup-smeared washcloths in the hamper.
For McCall, it’s the purses.
They were all lined up: First there was Sherrill’s, then Suzie’s and Stacy’s was next, sitting on top of Suzie’s overnight bag.
McCall remembers how things were rolling out of the purses. And inside Suzie’s room — where the TV was left on — Stacy’s flowered shorts were folded and put on top of her sandals. Stacy’s jewelry had been tucked inside the pocket of her shorts.
Looking around the house in the night hours of June 7, McCall and her husband, Stu, knew something wasn’t adding up.
The recent graduates weren’t supposed to spend the night there. They had planned to go to parties that June 6 evening and then, with others, head to Branson and stay in a hotel. The next morning they’d go to a water park.
On graduation night, Stacy called her mom at 10:30 and said she planned to stay with another friend and the group would go to Branson in the morning. But plans changed again, and Stacy decided to go home with Suzie and sleep on her new, king-sized waterbed.
Suzie led the way to Delmar Street and Stacy followed in her car.
When a friend of the two came looking for them the next afternoon to go to Branson, no one was home. The door was unlocked, and Cinnamon the family’s Yorkie yapped at the friend’s ankles.
Initially, no one thought anything bad had happened, they just wondered where in the world the women had gone.
Officers weren’t called to the home until some 10 hours after friends had discovered the three were gone, King said. By then, a friend of the girls had swept up the broken glass on the porch as a favor to Levitt. And nearly a dozen people had been in the home, all walking on carpet and sitting on chairs and couches.
All of that hindered police as they began to investigate.
For months, officers searched parks and lakes, woods and subdivisions. They were told to watch for circling buzzards and to check foul-smelling trash cans. They followed up when people swore they’d seen the women at a restaurant or the airport.
“We followed leads, we followed tips — some of them that were a little extreme,” said Terry Knowles, the Springfield police chief when the women disappeared. “But we did everything we felt was needed to be done. We committed untold resources to this case.”
But many through the years have criticized Knowles for what they called his micromanaging of the case. They said he ran the investigation out of his office rather than allowing his detectives to do their jobs.
Knowles, now living out retirement in Kansas, defended his leadership and the early investigation.
“We worked as a unit, as a team at the time,” he said. “Everyone was committed to this case and we did the best we could.”
In the first days, information surfaced about an old Dodge van. One woman said she saw a young woman driving the van who looked like Suzie, her face frightened, and heard a man’s voice saying, “Don’t do anything stupid.”
At one point, police parked a similar van outside headquarters, asking for help.
Today, investigators aren’t sure if the van was actually a true clue or a distraction that was never part of the case.
“I want to say we’re kind of in the same place we were 10 years ago,” King said. “We have those persons of interest, people we can’t rule out. We’re still looking for those handful of pieces to put in the puzzle that will help us solve the case.
“It may not be while I’m here, but I do think it will be solved.”
‘It changes how you view the world’
After Suzie disappeared, Holderby, then 19, had recurring nightmares where she frantically searched for her best friend.
The two had met while working at the Town & Country movie theater in town. Holderby said their bond was immediate, the pair connecting during their very first shift together in the box office.
“You know those people you just meet and it’s like you’ve known them forever? This is how it was,” she said.
For months after the disappearance, some memory would surface from their time together, some detail Holderby hadn’t yet shared with investigators. She’d contact them, desperate to provide the clue that led to more clues, to a resolution.
“As human beings, I feel like we look at all these things and think, ‘That is the one weird thing, that’s the clue.’ We want to be helpful and share every little thing,” Holderby said.
But clues never materialized. Suzie never returned. Two years passed, and Holderby had her first child — a daughter that she named Elizabeth, Suzie’s middle name.
Another two years went by, and Holderby had a second daughter and named her Suzann, again in memory of her friend.
She later had a third daughter and raised her children in Springfield before moving to Colorado nine months ago. The vigilance with which she parented is because of Suzie, and Stacy, and Sherrill, and how they all simply vanished.
“My kids will probably say I’m crazy overprotective and overbearing. I never let them have any fun. But when you lose something like that, it changes how you view the world,” she said.
Holderby keeps two photos of Suzie, placed on a bookshelf in her dining room. One is Suzie’s senior photo, placed in front of another picture of Holderby’s three children.
The other was taken June 6, 1992, hours before the women disappeared and the last time Holderby saw Suzie and Sherrill.
“I took her a (graduation) cake, and her mom took a picture of us together,” she said.
Others in the community may be less familiar with the case, but still it creeps into their minds on occasion.
“It kind of looms over,” said Kaitlin Baker, 24, a mother of two young children.
“I wish they would solve it. … You think about it sometimes. You’re like, ‘Wow, there were three girls — three of them and they still got taken.’”
‘They deserve to be remembered’
Before students at Springfield’s Kickapoo High headed into summer this year, their school’s magazine, KHQ Today, ran a lengthy piece about those who have simply become known as The Three Missing Women.
Student Tony Madden, who wrote the article with Magdelaine Mueller, grew up knowing about the case.
But too many students and teachers, he discovered, didn’t know what had happened in the summer of 1992. It’s why he wanted to write the story, which has been shared on social media 2,000 times.
“As so many years go by we kind of forget it’s a big deal,” said Madden, whose journalism adviser graduated with Stacy and Suzie. “I wanted the students at Kickapoo High School to know we hadn’t forgotten. … I think we forget that each is a person not just a missing person.”
It’s one reason McCall wants people to gather Wednesday night inside Springfield’s Victims Memorial Garden. She plans to have people share stories about each of the women and talk about who they were not what happened to them.
“They deserve to be remembered,” McCall said. “But let’s remember the fun things, not the dark and dreary. Let’s not remember how I felt back then, not remember that I used to get in the shower and cry.”
She plans to share a few stories about her daughter. Maybe the one where the family went out to eat the night before her graduation and instead of filling a bowl full of ice cream, she loaded it with gummy bears. Or maybe the one when she was a toddler and continued to say she was sick so she could go see the doctor she liked so much.
For years, McCall insisted she had hope that her daughter would come home. She’d be different, but she’d be home.
This year, a quarter century after she last saw her daughter, she admits that “facing reality has become more prominent.”
“It’s been 25 years and I know the chances of finding her are slim to none,” McCall said. “It’s not good to keep going on, thinking she’s going to come home every day.”