Sunday, January 9, 2000
On the morning of Dec.
23, 1974, three girls from three different families set out on a
shopping trip to the then-rather glitzy Seminary South Shopping
Center in south Fort Worth. They were supposed to be home by 4 p.m.
- but they never returned.
Rachel Arnold Trlica,
17, picked up her friend Renee Wilson, 14, and when little Julie Ann
Moseley, who lived across the street from Renee's grandmother,
begged to go along, the older girls said she'd have to get
Julie Ann was only 9 that
morning and simply didn't want to spend the day alone. She persuaded
her mother to let her go.
The mystery surrounding
their disappearance continues to confound law enforcement officials
while it haunts and tangles the lives of all the families involved.
For some, time stopped that December day. For others, the tragedy
created a seedbed of suspicion that now divides a sister from a
brother and a mother from a son. It is a chasm no bridge can span, a
riddle with no answers; it is a constant grieving.
Just after the
disappearance, the families walked creek beds and country roads
looking for their missing children. Psychics and pranksters called.
Private investigators poked into the case. The police chased a
hundred empty leads.
The slow days stretched
into long years and the puzzle of the missing girls remained
unsolved. Winters turned to summers and back again and still the
families waited for answers. What happened to their children? Why?
sure," says Rayanne Moseley, the mother of the youngest missing
girl. "Somebody knows. Somebody knows for sure what
Rayanne is right. For 25
years, someone has lived knowing the truth and never whispered a
word. Someone has kept the secret.
When 14-year-old Renee
Wilson went to her grandmother's house on Gordon Street that
December morning in 1974, she wore red and white sneakers and a pale
yellow-green T-shirt with "Sweet Honesty" printed across
Her shoulder-length hair
had a hint of red and a mind of its own. She probably hadn't planned
on going shopping, but when her longtime friend Rachel Arnold Trlica, a married high school student with a car, called and
suggested a trip to Seminary South, Renee was game.
Rachel and Renee had been
friends for years. Their families camped and fished together, but
Rachel hadn't known Julie Ann Moseley very well at all.
Julie Ann and her family
lived across the street from Renee's grandmother's house, where
Renee stayed when her mother worked at a dry cleaners. Renee knew
all the Moseley children. In fact, she had a crush on Julie Ann's
older brother, Terry.
That very morning, Terry
had surprised Renee with a delicate "promise ring." He'd
slipped the little ring on her finger and vowed to love her forever,
he remembers now with an embarrassed grin.
Terry, now 41, was 15
then, with long brown hair and a devil-may-care attitude. The girls
asked him to go shopping, but he shook his head. No. He wanted to
see a sick friend instead.
Renee was determined to
be back by 4 p.m. so she'd have plenty of time to primp for a
Christmas party that night - a party Terry was going to attend with
The girls set out before
noon. They stopped at the Army Navy Store to retrieve some layaways
and then traveled on to Seminary South (what is now Fort Worth Town
Center), where they parked the Olds 98 on the upper level near
Several people remember
seeing them in the mall. A few remember Renee's "Sweet
Honesty" T-shirt. Apparently they made it back to the car.
Their Christmas purchases were found locked inside.
But what happened next?
One woman told a store
clerk that she saw some men hustle the girls into a pickup truck.
Police never located that witness. Another said the girls had been
spotted in a security patrol car.
In 1981, years after the
disappearance, a man said he'd been in the parking lot that day and
he'd seen a man forcing a girl into a van. The man in the van told
him it was a family dispute and to stay out of it.
The eyewitness accounts
raised a mountain of questions - but not one answer. Did the girls
leave with someone they knew? Did they split up; little Julie Ann
going with one person and the older girls going with another?
If they were running
away, would they leave the clothes they just got from layaway in the
car? Was there a conspiracy, a setup, a plan to get one of the
girls? All of them? Did something innocent take a sinister twist?
What happened? Where did
they go? Who knows the secret?
At first, police said the
girls had simply run away, but the parents protested. As if to
document the police's theory, a letter arrived the next morning.
It was addressed to
Rachel's young husband, but the name on the envelope was a formal
"Thomas A. Trlica," not the familiar "Tommy" she
always called him. "Rachel" was scrawled in the upper
left-hand corner of the envelope.
There was no city name on
the postmark, only a blurred Postal Service number: 76083.
Curiously, the 3 appears to be backward. Maybe it is an unfinished 8
or perhaps the last two digits of the stamp were hand-loaded, as
private investigator Dan James believes, and it is supposed to be
38. If it is 38, then it may have been stamped in Eliasville, near
Throckmorton. If it is 76088, then the letter may have been posted
The letter was on a sheet
of paper wider than the envelope. Written in a childish scrawl it
"I know I'm going to
catch it, but we just had to get away. We're going to Houston. See
you in about a week. The car is in Sear's upper lot. Love
"l" on Rachel's name had been a short loop that looked
more like an "e." The writer had gone back over it, making
it a taller loop.
Rachel's mother, Fran
Langston, never believed the letter came from her daughter.
Rachel's husband, Tommy
Trlica, now 47 and a supervisor with an East Texas water
department, agrees. "I never thought it came from Rachel,"
he said in a recent phone interview. Handwriting experts are
uncertain, their tests inconclusive.
While much of that day
and the night before are a blur in his memory, Tommy is certain
about the letter.
He picked it up out of
the mailbox himself, he says. He believes the letter was sealed.
He doesn't remember
anything else in the box that day. No Christmas cards. No fliers. No
bills. Just the letter.
The 10-cent stamp had
been canceled that morning: Dec. 24, 1974.
Rusty Arnold was only 11
years old the afternoon his sister, Rachel, disappeared, but he says
that day has left an indelible mark on his life. Now 36 and a local
roofing contractor, Rusty is determined to discover the truth about
the disappearance. He scratches and tears at the case almost daily
in a dogged pursuit that has ravaged his relationship with his older
sister and his mother.
When he was in his teens,
Rusty and his older sister, Debra Hopper, now 44, were allies. They
often talked about the case and tried to solve the mystery.
Debra was 19 that
December day. Sitting in her living room sipping iced tea on a
recent afternoon, she is pensive as she recalls that morning and the
sadder milestones of her life.
"I've made a lot of
bad choices in my life," she admits with a sigh. She talks
easily about a life filled with hurts, an unhappy childhood, failed
marriages, a brief stay in a detox center, but none is more painful
than the wounds left by her sister's disappearance, she says.
"We had a special
bond" she says. According to Debra, both girls were afraid of
their father, who she says had a hot temper. He was also a sick man,
who was dying of cancer at the time of the disappearance and was
buried that summer.
Debra, a trim woman with
long blond hair, smooth skin and round gray eyes, is herself an
engaging mix of sunlight and shadow. It's no wonder that Tommy was
attracted to her.
They were even engaged
for a short time. As a matter of fact, that's how Rachel met Tommy.
But on this day Debra waves away the thought of a serious
relationship with Tommy.
"We had been
engaged. Oh, it wasn't a real engagement," she says rolling her
Tommy, then only in his
early 20s, had already lost both his parents and was the divorced
father of a 2-year-old son. He and Rachel had been married only
about six months when Debra had an argument with her boyfriend and
moved in for a short stay with the newlyweds.
Even given their history,
Tommy says there was no uneasiness between them, and Debra insists
the romance was long over.
She recalls that Rachel
woke her the morning of the disappearance and asked her to go
shopping. Debra stayed in bed instead.
Debra was there the next
morning when Tommy took the letter out of the mailbox
By the spring of 1975,
the families were frustrated by the police investigation, so they
hired a flamboyant private investigator named Jon Swaim. He called
press conferences, forced the police to let him examine case files -
and made headlines.
On Swaim's word that he'd
received an anonymous tip that the girl's remains could be found
near Port Lavaca, 100 volunteers searched an overgrown, swampy
bayou. Police had searched there earlier, but with only a handful of
people. Throughout the year, Swaim kept the spotlight on the case -
and on himself - with reports that an unidentified man had called,
trying to collect the reward the families had offered in exchange
for information about the girls' whereabouts.
Swaim died in 1979 of
what was said to be a drug overdose. The death was ruled a suicide.
All his files, including records of this case, were destroyed - just
as he had requested.
Debra remembered that
over the months and even years following the disappearance, psychics
wrote troubling letters saying the girls' bodies had been dumped
here, there and everywhere. The families followed every lead.
Searchers combed through the Texas brush and explored hundreds of
In 1975, skeletal remains
of a girl and a woman were found near San Antonio. For a time the
families thought the wait was over, but those bones had nothing to
do with this case.
In March 1976, a seer
called Fort Worth police from Hawaii to say that the girls' bodies
could be found near an oil well. For some reason, searchers focused
on the area around Rising Star, a small community near Abilene, but
nothing was found - except oil wells.
That same year, an
oil-company employee discovered human bones in a bog near Houston.
The swampy landscape was dotted with oil derricks. The discovery led
nowhere until the spring of 1981, when more bones were discovered in
that same bog and a massive search was launched. Skeletal remains of
three girls were found - but not these girls.
Rachel's mother, Fran
Langston, pasted every newspaper article in a scrapbook. Debra and
Rusty read and reread the clippings. They talked late into the
night, guessing what might have happened.
interest has developed into a zealous preoccupation. Tommy's letter
holds particular interest to him. He is certain that Rachel did not
write that letter.
He is just as sure that
Rachel - and only Rachel - is alive and that it is only a matter of
time - perhaps even days - before he finds her. Following the
disappearance, there were several reports that the two older girls
had been spotted at different locations: a gas station, near a
Wal-Mart, in a country store. If Rusty dismissed these reports as
shams in the beginning, he became convinced that they were genuine
after meeting private investigator Dan James. James says he has been
following the case since 1975.
Rusty met him 20 years
later. Rusty found James' name in a random search of the Yellow
Pages as he looked for a private investigator.
To Rusty's surprise,
James already knew plenty about the case. Better yet, James seemed
as interested in solving the riddle of the disappearance as he did.
Never hired by the
families, James says he hasn't received a penny in compensation for
his work. He has received death threats from anonymous callers
warning him away from the case, he says.
In December, he announced
a $25,000 reward to be paid from his own pocket for the "arrest
and conviction of the person or persons responsible" for the
disappearance of the three girls.
He has not set up a
designated account for the reward, but says he is willing to write
the check. He says his wife would not object to such a payment,
Does he expect that
someone will be able to claim the money? He smiles and shuffles his
black boots against the floor. "Maybe," he says.
According to James,
several "credible witnesses" say they've spotted Rachel
since the disappearance. "One was in 1998 around
Christmas," he says.
Rusty and James believe
that Rachel visits Fort Worth during the Christmas season each year.
James is careful with his words, but he maintains that someone is
"shrouding and manufacturing evidence" in what he says was
at first an effort to keep the two older girls away. Now he thinks
only Rachel survives. He is evasive about what he thinks happened or
who he believes can be held accountable.
"I believe that that
person facilitates and maintains an effort to keep Rachel Arnold [Trlica]
away from Fort Worth. I believe that Renee Wilson is not alive. . .
. I believe that something dreadfully wrong, and probably a
fatality, occurred involving Julie Ann Moseley," he says.
Rusty buys James'
deductions, but neatly sidesteps on-the-record comments himself.
Yes, he has a theory. No, he won't discuss it, except to say that
"someone close to one of the girls had something to do with the
Debra is more candid.
"I know he blames me. I know he thinks I had something to do
with it. . . . Rusty thinks this letter that Tommy got the next day
- he thinks I wrote it. . . . I didn't write this letter. I don't
know who did. I don't know what happened to my sister. Maybe white
slavery. That's the only thing that makes sense to me," she
says. "I have nothing to hide." (Click
here for Families Respond to Debra's Statement)
Tears fill her eyes when
she talks about her sister and the ruined relationship with her
brother. "It's hard enough to deal with it that my sister is
not here anymore. I had to go through lots and lots of counseling
because of all the things that happened in my life," she says.
Rusty and Debra and their
mother live on the same south-side street, only a few doors apart,
but the ties that bind this family are in tatters. Their
relationships are coming apart at the seams. Fran Langston blames
James for "poisoning Rusty's mind" and says her family has
Rachel's family is not
the only one in chaos. The disappearance of little Julie Ann
Moseley, only 9 years old that day in 1974, rocked her family, too.
On a recent balmy
November afternoon, her mother, Rayanne Moseley, settled into a
recliner in a small North Richland Hills apartment and made a joke
about a hole in her sock as a black cat jumped into her lap. A wind
chime jangled in the distance.
Articulate and intense,
Rayanne grew melancholy, even wistful, as she recalled that December
day and how it changed her life.
"I was working for
an electrical contractor, and my husband and I were separated. It
was a bitter, bitter time. I remember that Julie called and wanted
to go to Seminary South. I said, 'No. You don't have any money. You
just stay home.' I knew Renee and her mother, but I really didn't
know Rachel. But she [Julie] kept whining about she wouldn't have
anybody to play with. . . . I finally gave in, but I told her to be
home by 6."
Of course 6 came and
went, and so did 7, 8 and 9 p.m. Anger gave way to worry. Rayanne
doesn't remember much about that night. Somehow she got to the
shopping center. She talked to police. Somehow she got home.
Like a breaker tripped in
an electrical storm, Rayanne shut down. She retreated behind some
dark wall in her mind. She plodded through the days, waited
impatiently by the telephone, closed herself off from any
responsible movement and quietly lost her mind, she says.
Her world was at a crazy
tilt, twirling into some shadowy universe only she could recognize.
She lost her job, got another.
"I could go to work.
I don't know how. But I couldn't do anything else. I had two other
children who needed me, but I wasn't here for them. I wouldn't come
home. I was honky-tonking around." She shifts in the recliner
and strokes the cat's head. "I wish it hadn't been that way. I
wish to God I could go back and change it, but I can't," she
For the next two decades,
Rayanne visited psychologists and psychiatrists. She spent time in
one hospital and then another.
Finally she began to keep
journals and explore those deep hurts. Only recently has she been
strong enough, well enough, ready enough to go on with her life.
During all those lost
years, her other children, Terry and Janet Hensley, now 37, have
grown to adulthood. Their struggle to maturity was complicated by
their mother's emotional and mental turmoil.
Janet says she began
selling beer and cigarettes at a little store when she was only 12.
She dropped out of school and married early. Terry scrounged up work
where he could.
"I can't recall our
childhood," Janet said recently. Terry remembers that he bought
food and locked it in his closet so he'd have enough to eat. Janet
often raided his stash.
Married for 20 years to
his high-school sweetheart, Terry is now a quiet man who shows great
pride in his son and speaks lovingly of his daughter. This stable
home is, he says, a hard-won prize. Julie Ann's disappearance has
left a terrible scar. Janet agrees.
"Things would have
been different if this hadn't happened," Janet says of the
disappearance. "My mother would have been there more. She'd
have watched over us more. This drove her crazy," she says.
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Renee's mother, Judy
Wilson, still lives with her husband in the house they lived in the
day the girls vanished. Now it has bars on the windows and an iron
gate across the porch. She has forgotten bits and pieces of the
events of that day, but other things are as clear as polished glass
in her memory.
As darkness settled over
the city, she became frantic. She had the girls paged at all the
stores in the shopping center. She called the hospitals and the
police. Long before the shoppers went home, they found the car.
For a while, Judy was
angry with God. She's over that now, she says. But she believes that
all the girls are dead. It's easier that way. She cannot bear to
think they have been tortured or abused for these long years.
She and her husband,
Richard, sheltered their only other child, Ricky, from the curious.
Now, 25 years later, Ricky prefers to keep his thoughts to himself.
The Wilsons have stayed
busy, worked to move on with their lives, she says.
Still, when the house is
quiet and Judy lets her memory wander, the questions wiggle up from
the corners of her mind. What happened that December afternoon? Why?
Who keeps the secret?
Somebody knows, she says.
Somebody knows for sure.
Mary Rogers, (817)
Lauer;Joyce Marshall;Jill Johnson
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