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Families share stories of Missouri's missing

Families share stories of Missouri's missing

June 12th, 2016 by Shelby Rowe in Local News

Marianne Asher-Chapman, co-founder of Missouri Missing, speaks at the Missouri Missing and Unidentified Persons Awareness Day event in Jefferson City on Saturday, June 11, 2016. Asher-Chapman co-founded the organization after the disappearance of her daughter, Michelle "Angie" Yarnell, from Ivy Bend.

Photo by Annie Rice /News Tribune.

In Missouri, there are more than 900 missing people with families awaiting answers.

Gallery: Missouri Missing

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On Saturday, families from all over the state gathered in Jefferson City at the Missouri Missing ninth annual event to share their stories about the people in their lives who vanished. Missouri Missing is a nonprofit organization that works to connect families to resources and help spread the word about their missing person.

Read some of their stories below and check out the related photo gallery.

Doug Brucks

Missing since April 10, 1995, from Jefferson City

Twenty-one years.

It's been 21 years, two months and two days since Doug Brucks vanished from Jefferson City.

Several rumors about the origin of his disappearance have made their way to the ears of his family, but they still don't know exactly what happened to him, said Debbie Hamler, Brucks' sister.

"We were just a regular Jeff City family," Hamler said. "We went through West Elementary and the Jeff City schools. My dad ran a service station, so he always sponsored my brother's sports teams. I see people we grew up with, and they always say, 'Your dad was so nice.' Lots of people finally work up the nerve to say, 'Did you guys ever find Doug?' They don't know because we don't really broadcast it, but they can know now that we never found Doug."

On April 10, 1995, Brucks met someone for dinner at Country Kitchen and never came home. He planned on driving his mother and her friend to St. Louis the next day and even called on the 11th to say he was on his way. However, the afternoon rolled around, and no one heard from him.

He was an adult at 42 years of age, and adults have the right to disappear if they want to. So it was difficult filing a missing persons report for him right away, said Hamler. Several weeks after his disappearance at the beginning of May, she filed an official report, and the police began searching for him.

The police started to build scenarios, mostly surrounding money conflicts between him and his friends, but every lead ran dry. And stories from his friends conflicted and changed as time went on. The family did their own investigation, contacting anyone he associated with, and anytime Hamler had a theory, she phoned the police.

At first, everyone was hopeful maybe one day he would walk through the front door. After the first few months passed, the reality seemed more dismal, and after a year had gone by, Hamler felt certain he was dead.

"During the investigation, many people that were interviewed seemed fearful to talk about what they thought happened to him," she said. "My mother is now 89 years old, she doesn't know where her son is. It's not very fair, and I know there are people who probably know what happened to my brother."

Not knowing is the worst part, she said. And how can a whole person just disappear? How can there be no evidence of him anywhere?

Brucks struggled with a prescription drug and alcohol addiction for about 10 years before he went missing. Pressure from work lead to abuse of his prescriptions, and when the medications ran out, he self-medicated with alcohol, she said.

He was in an out of several rehabs, rarely finishing the program; nothing seemed to really stick.

Before he disappeared, Hamler said he seemed to be doing better — he had a steady job and became a Christian. Some of the people he met in rehab were probably harmful to him, and Hamler believes they had something to do with his disappearance.

"Sometimes I think, well maybe he was with people and overdosed, and they got scared and did something with him," she said. "Why would they just kill him?"

His son, Devon, probably suffered the most, she said. He was 8 years old when Brucks went missing, and even though it wasn't his fault, Devon likely feels some sort of abandonment.

Brucks' mother still thinks one day he will walk through the front door. And even if Hamler thought that was possible, he wouldn't be the handsome young man they all remember him being.

"Being a strong Christian, you can finally live with this," she said. "I know he's in heaven. We miss him horribly and being part of our lives. At a certain point, you find a place for it."

Some family members of missing people eventually hold funerals for their loved one, but Hamler said it isn't something they've considered yet. They held a remembrance for him a year after he went missing, and it gave them some of the closure they needed.

Hamler connected with Missouri Missing a few years ago and started speaking at the events. This year, she was unable, but getting to know other families has helped her with her own loss.

"I think you just realize in life so many different things happen to different people, and you just try to do the best you can," she said. "It's amazing how many people are missing."

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Michelle "Angie" Yarnell

Missing since Nov. 1, 2003, from Ivy Bend

Marianne Asher-Chapman, co-founder of Missouri Missing, was first lead to believe maybe her daughter, Michelle "Angie" Yarnell, had run off with another man.

It was peculiar story, Asher-Chapman said, especially since Yarnell, 28, supposedly left without her dogs, clothes or any money. Her husband said all she took was a large, framed collage she had made.

Why would that be the thing she chose to take, Asher-Chapman always asked.

It was the story Yarnell's husband stuck with for several years before confessing he had killed her.

He eventually told police they had gotten into an argument that spilled out onto the back deck, where he either pushed Yarnell or she fell four feet and hit her head on a rock, killing her immediately.

The confession and promise to show authorities where he took her body won him a plea bargain sentence of seven years. But authorities still never found her, and he only served four years of his sentence before getting out on three years of parole. In July, Yarnell's killer will be free.

Asher-Chapman never bought Yarnell's story. When she went to visit their old house, she found he'd replaced a large square of new drywall where the collage had been — the one he said she took with her when she ran away — and there was new carpeting around that area.

She's convinced that's where blunt trauma occurred.

He told police he tried to take her body to an island nearby their home in Ivy Bend. However, the canoe he had her in capsized, and her body sunk into the mud.

He still claims that's what happened, but every year, Asher-Chapman drives to their old neighborhood and digs holes around the house looking for her.

"I'm not totally convinced she's dead," she said. "If you don't have something tangible, it leaves the window open. Even if it's a tiny little crack, your mind will take you to these places. Sometimes when a car drives by really slow, I think it could be Angie. I don't know how not to think these things."

Asher-Chapman and Peggy Florence started Missouri Missing nine years ago after Florence's daughter disappeared. For nine years, they've helped other grieving families through the process of making flyers, putting up messages on billboards, working with the police and helping families find closure with funerals and remembrance ceremonies.

When Yarnell went missing, Asher-Chapman said she learned a lot on her own, doing her own investigations and battling with police to keep Yarnell's case open as a missing person, since her body was never found.

While Missouri Missing can't lobby for any legislation, Asher-Chapman is advocating for new legislation that will make it easier for different police agencies to share data on missing people. It would be a huge step toward connecting unidentified remains with people who are still missing, she said.

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Lynn Messer

Missing since July 7, 2014, from St. Genevieve County

Kerry Messer fell in love with a girl he'd never met the moment he laid eyes on her. In 15 minutes, they were holding hands, and in two weeks, they had their first date and first kiss.

He married Lynn Messer three years later, and she kept both dates marked on her calendar every year for 34 years.

It's been almost two years since he's seen her face.

The couple went to bed around midnight, and when he awoke suddenly to the sound of thunder, he noticed she was gone. It wasn't uncommon for her to get up and walk around during the night, since pain from her hips kept her awake.

He listened for her. He listened for the sound of her foot steps, the washing machine or dishes clinking in the sink, but all he heard was the sound of soft rain against the roof.

It's been almost two years, and he's still looking for her. She was 52 when she vanished from their rural home.

"I tell people who say they can't understand it is that I know you can't understand," he said. "For me, even two years later, it still feels surreal. I still wake up every morning and lay my arm across the bed hoping its all been a bad dream.

"I have zero belief that she's still alive, but without finding her, I'm stuck," he said.

One of the few things that has kept him going is God and lobbying for legislation at the Capitol. He's been a full-time volunteer lobbyist for several decades, but his missing wife has given him a purpose.

"If this is why I'm in this world, I've got to do something," he said.

Earlier this year, he lobbied to add an advocate for missing people that would prepare Missouri to dovetail into a national system used to find missing people. It would essentially allow the search radar to widen. Information about the missing persons or unidentified remains would be accessible to law enforcement nationwide, making it easier to identify someone who is found outside the state they're missing from.

Other states have implemented similar legislation, known as Billy's Law, but Messer has yet to find a state that has a missing person's advocate.

Missouri currently uses to NamUs, a free online system comprised of three databases. The three collect information about missing people and unidentified remains anyone can search through. NamUs pairs well with legislation like Billy's Law so different arms of law enforcement can easily share what information they have regarding missing people or unidentified remains.

Messer said the idea was well received by legislators this year, but there was some apprehension. Messer plans to take the idea back to the Capitol next session.

"There are 2,300 to 2,400 people that will go missing today, and the same number tomorrow and the day after that and the day after that," he said. "Of that, the vast majority are found between two hours and two months. Over a dozen a day will never be found."

Between 40,000 and 60,000 unidentified human remains are held by local agencies nationwide. Having better search resources could help thousands of families find closure. The worst part is not knowing.

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Christina Whittaker

Missing since Nov. 13, 2009, from Hannibal

Christina Whittaker, 21, was at a bar with friends seven years ago when she got in an argument with someone and was ordered by the bartender to leave.

She had arranged a ride with her best friend, but she didn't want to leave. Whittaker became desperate, asking for rides from everyone at the bar.

Her mother, Cindy Young, knew something was wrong when she woke up at 7 a.m. the next morning without a text from her daughter.

"She'd be 28 now," she said, with her arm around her squirmy 7-year-old granddaughter, Alexandria Johnston, who was only 6-months-old when her mother disappeared from Hannibal.

Alexandria prays her mother, wherever she is, has food, water, TV, a bed, and a phone so she can call her.

Whittaker's phone was found on 7th Street in Hannibal, not far from the bar she was hanging out at and the same location of a hit-and-run the same night. Police said the hit-and-run was a coincidence and didn't have anything to do with Whittaker's disappearance.

Young, however, believes someone took Whittaker and trafficked her to Peoria, Illinois. She hired a private investigator that tracked multiple leads to that location. Young thinks her daughter is still there and goes searching for her every month.

She and Alexandria attended the Saturday ceremony and spoke about Whittaker.

"I feel sad because my mommy is missing," read Alexandria's letter. "I miss her being here for everything. I ask Jesus to please bring her back because I miss her so much in my heart. I just really want all this to be over with so I can have my mommy back."

Young said she feels fortunate because she has evidence of her daughter's general location, unlike several other families.

"We're like a family," she said, of the Missouri Missing families. "Not because we wanted to be; we just got dragged into it. It had been a couple years since I had come to an event. I don't like to plan too far ahead because I always think that she'll be found."