Legions of the Disappeared: Real-Life Missing Persons (Part III).

This is the third article in my ongoing series profiling real-life missing persons cases. I’m publicizing these cases on Twitter, twice a day, at 11:00 AM and 4:00 PM, under the hashtag #disappeared. [Update: I am now doing these updates on a different Twitter account, @CharleysMissing.] To catch up on what I’m doing, why I’m doing it and where the links I’m tweeting lead to, you’ll want to read the original blog from December, and the follow-up which was posted New Year’s Day.

Since I began this project I’ve been in touch with Meaghan, who runs the Charley Project website (and the related blog). We’ve chatted about a number of missing persons cases, and she is a wealth of information on this subject. I highly recommend following Meaghan’s blog, as she posts thoughts, updates and discussions on various cases profiled in her database, as well as other interesting topics.

Now, onto the cases I’m showcasing this time. These are among the most interesting and thought-provoking of the cases I’ve linked on my Twitter in the past few months.

Jovanna Crawford

Missing Since: June 1981

Featured on my Twitter 1/18/12


(At left: Jovanna Crawford as she appeared in 1981. At right: Jovanna as she may appear today).

Of all of the cases I’ve profiled since October, I’ve probably spent more time thinking about the disappearance of young Jovanna Crawford than almost any other single case. This one is haunting, sad, and mysterious all at once.

First, the facts. Jovanna Crawford was a baby, not yet two years old, when she disappeared from Connecticut more than 30 years ago. She was being babysat by one Ronald Garrett, then the boyfriend of Jovanna’s mother. According to Mr. Garrett, at about 10:20 AM on June 5, 1981, a young boy, an African-American youth about 10 or 11 years old, appeared at the apartment in the Barnum Housing Projects in Bridgeport, Connecticut. The boy, who was described as having small braids in his hair, said he was supposed to pick up baby Jovanna and bring her to the home of Jovanna’s great-grandmother, who also lived in the same housing project. Mr. Garrett said he recognized the boy, so he allowed him to take her. Young Jovanna was never seen again. The great-grandmother hadn’t sent anyone to pick her up.

Mr. Garrett was arrested and sentenced to a year in prison for endangering Jovanna by giving her to the strange boy. Police, at least at the time, doubted the whole story and suspected that the young boy with the braids did not in fact exist. Whatever didhappen on that morning in June so long ago, no one is sure.

Mary Corbin, Jovanna’s mother, is still looking for her daughter. She believes Jovanna is still alive, possibly unaware of who she really is. Ms. Corbin is profiled in this article which ran in February 2011. In that article an investigator again states that he believes Mr. Garrett knows more than he was telling and that the boy with braids didn’t exist.

Here’s the thing, though: when Meaghan ran a profile on her blog about the Crawford case, not long before the news article ran, two random people chose to comment. One of them stated that she thought she might be Jovanna Crawford. Another commenter said he was the boy with the braids, and that he needed “closure” on the case. Authorities investigating the case became aware of the comments; one such official, or at least someone pretending to be an official investigator, posted a little later urging the commenters to tell the police what they knew.

On a hunch I did a little investigation on the person who claimed he was the boy with the braids. (Although he posted his name on that blog, I don’t feel comfortable disclosing it on mine). The person who popped up, through public records, LinkedIn and other information publicly available on the web, does seem to have lived in Bridgeport, Connecticut, and he is exactly the right age to have been 10 years old in 1981. I’m certain the Bridgeport police must have investigated him, and, as I’ve said often, you can’t ever take at face value a random Internet blog comment; maybe there was nothing there or the blog comments were hoaxes. Nevertheless, it’s worth thinking about.

What happened to Jovanna Crawford? Is she still alive? Ms. Corbin thinks so, as do others. Perhaps we will never know, but there’s always a chance that a case like this can be solved.

If you know anything about Jovanna Crawford’s disappearance, call the Bridgeport Police at 203-576-7671.

Peter Kema

Missing Since: September 1997

Featured on my Twitter 1/20/12


The case of Peter J. Kema, Jr. is messy, complex and disturbing. It’s complicated by certain cultural differences that make it more than the run-of-the-mill case of a missing child.

“Pepe” Kema, six years old, was definitely multiracial—his ancestry is Chinese, Filipino, Spanish and Hawaiian. His father, Peter Kema, Sr., seems to have brought him to Honolulu, Hawaii in August 1997 while he was looking for work. Peter’s father claims they were homeless at the time and lived in a park with a number of other transients. He said that because he couldn’t provide for his son, he gave him to a relative, Rose Makuakane. The father showed the police a letter in which he told Ms. Makuakane that he was surrendering the child into her custody. However, the letter was dated almost a month after the last confirmed sighting of Pepe.

Charley Project’s lengthy article on the Kema case contains this information:

“Hawaii has a history of unofficial adoptions referred to as ‘hanai.’ In the hanai tradition, the biological parents turn over custody of a child to a blood relative…Many people familiar with the customs of hanai have stated the Kema situation does not classify as such an arrangement.”

The case gets more complicated when one realizes that, like the boy with braids in the Crawford case, there is a serious question as to whether Rose Makuakane ever actually existed. Police have not been able to track her down. In fact, Peter Sr., the boy’s father, may never have traveled to Honolulu at all. Prior to the disappearance of Pepe, Peter Sr. was involved in numerous situations suggesting child abuse, and Pepe’s surviving siblings describe horrific abuses occurring in the household.

The truth behind this sad case may never be known. In any event, no one has seen Pepe Kema in nearly 15 years. If you have, or if you have any information, contact the Honolulu police at 808-935-3311.

Ben Bearrick

Missing Since: January 2009

Featured on my Twitter 1/23/12


This case is noteworthy because it presents two seemingly insoluble mysteries wrapped up together.

On January 23, 2009, Benjamin Bearrick, a 55-year-old resident of Bovina, Mississippi, appeared at a hospital emergency room with a mortally wounded man. The victim of the crime, 50-year-old Shawn Sponholz, lived next door to Mr. Bearrick, and he had been stabbed multiple times in the neck. Sadly, Mr. Sponholz did not survive this attack and died at the hospital. Mr. Bearrick told the police that he came home and found his friend bleeding, and he didn’t know who had attacked him or why.

A few days later, police came to Mr. Bearrick’s home to interview him again, but he was gone. Evidently he had not been home in several days. No one has seen him since, no body has been found, and no one has any idea what happened.

Here is a video where Mr. Bearrick’s daughter and friends express their concern for him.

The obvious theory is that Bearrick’s disappearance and Sponholz’s murder are linked. Mr. Bearrick, a Vietnam veteran and respected citizen in Bovina, was evidently not a suspect. Who, then, killed Shawn Sponholz, and did that person also kill Ben Bearrick? If Mr. Bearrick could identify the murderer or provide some other crucial information, why did he not do so right away? Three years on, these questions remain unanswered

If you know anything about the Bearrick or Sponholz cases, call the Warren County Sheriff’s Office at 601-636-1761.

Michael Palmer

Missing Since: June 1999

Featured on my Twitter 2/28/12


Fifteen-year-old Michael Palmer of Wasilla, Alaska, attended a party on the night of June 4, 1999 celebrating a friend’s graduation from high school. He had sneaked out of his house in order to attend this party. At 4:00 AM he was seen riding his bicycle down Pitman Road, toward the Palmer home, presumably so he could return to bed by sunrise. He had fallen behind some friends who were also biking away from the party. The friends waited for him at a local convenience store, but Mike never appeared. He hasn’t been seen since.

Mike’s bicycle was later found in the river. One of his friends also found his shoes, which he recognized Mike had been wearing at the party. The shoes, wet and muddy, were found near a private airstrip. Despite extensive searches, no body was found and tracking dogs couldn’t pick up his scent.

Rumors swirled in the wake of Mike Palmer’s disappearance. The family received several crank phone calls, some claiming he was dead. A local youth evidently told police that he’d seen Mike being shot and thrown into a river, but he later said he made up that story. No convincing evidence has surfaced to offer any clue as to what happened to this young man.

This case is mystifying enough, but to learn why subsequent events made it even more heartbreaking, read on.

Charles “Chucky” Palmer

Missing Since: April 2010

Featured on my Twitter 12/28/11


Chucky Palmer, age 30, of Talkeetna, Alaska, was snowmobiling with a group of friends in the wilderness in April 2010. A news report summarizes the case thusly:

“Palmer…had been snowmachining during the day with friends and family to the west of Mastadon Road near Bald Mountain, last year on April 10th. The group was headed back to a cabin for the night when Palmer got lost from the group. Later it was discovered that Palmer had snowmachined off the well-defined trail and would have waded into waist deep snow had he gone off the side snowmachine trail he had chosen.  Friends were the first to find the snowmachine. There was about a 12 hour delay in calling troopers.  When the troopers arrived they found no trace of footprints anywhere on the trail, but did find the snowmachine stuck in the snow.”

The extensive search for Mr. Palmer was eventually called off for bad weather. It is presumed that he got lost and died of exposure. On April 12, 2011, a legal hearing declared Charles Palmer presumptively dead.

Chucky Palmer is the older brother of Michael Timothy Palmer.

There is no reason to suggest that the Palmer brothers’ disappearances are related. While foul play seems to be at least a reasonable supposition in Michael’s, an accidental exposure-related fate seems most probable in Chucky’s case. Nevertheless, seeing a family touched twice by tragedy of this nature is unbearable.

I cannot imagine the pain, anguish and uncertainty that this family has been going through. It simply beggars the imagination. A case like this really brings home the terrible human impact that surrounds these missing persons cases. These aren’t just dull case files posted on a website. Each and every one of these cases represents someone’s son, someone’s brother, someone’s child who may never return, and for whom there may never be closure.

If you know anything about the disappearances of the Palmer brothers, call the Alaska State Troopers at 907-745-2131 or 907-451-5100.

Bonita Bickwit & Mitchel Weiser

Missing Since: July 1973

Featured on my Twitter 3/9/12 (scheduled)


Fifteen-year-old Bonita Bickwit and her boyfriend, 16-year-old Mitchel Weiser, left their respective places of work in New York State on a July evening in 1973 to hitchhike to a rock concert featuring the Allman Brothers and the Grateful Dead. Bonita, in fact, quit her job at a summer camp that day when they wouldn’t give her the evening off to go to the concert. Bonita and Mitchel were deeply in love and despite their youth they considered themselves married, having exchanged wedding rings a few months earlier. They took off with backpacks, sleeping bags, a flannel shirt and about $25 in cash.

A truck driver who picked them up and gave them a ride for part of the way was the last person to see them. The concert, in Glen Watkins, New York, was the largest concert in history, with about 800,000 people attending. No one knows for sure if they actually made it to the concert.

Although this happened in 1973, this case of a double-disappeared illustrates how many of these cases never die. Charley Project states:

“Bickwit and Weiser’s families and friends have never forgotten about the two. Weiser’s family has since moved to Arizona, but they keep a phone listing in the Brooklyn telephone directory since 1973 in case either of the teens decide to contact them. Years following their disappearance, Weiser’s father accepted a collect call from someone identifying herself as ‘Bonnie.’ By the time the operator was able to connect them the caller had hung up. She did not call back and has never been identified.

In 2000, a witness, Allyn Smith, claimed he saw both Bickwit and Weiser drown while they were on their way back from Watkins Glen. Smith, then 24, said he was also going to the Watkins Glen rock festival and hitched a ride on a Volkswagen bus and two teenagers, whom he identified as Bickwit and Weiser, were also on the bus…They all stopped to cool off in a nearby river when Bickwit got into trouble in the water. Weiser jumped in to save her and they were both swept away, still alive. The bus driver told Smith he would call the police at the nearest gas station, but authorities have no record of such a call being made…The driver of the bus has not been found and Smith cannot remember the location of the river the teens allegedly drowned in. As a result, his story cannot be fully investigated.”

Did these bright young people drown in a river in New York State? If so, why were their bodies never found? Allyn Smith says he was there, and a good swimmer; why didn’t he try to rescue them? Did they reach Watkins Glen or not? With 800,000 people there, surely somebody saw them. But this baffling case seems to have no resolution.

Perhaps Bickwit and Weiser ran away together, as authorities originally suspected. After 40 years, though, wouldn’t the impetuousness of youth fade and at least one of them be motivated to contact their families? The truth is that we have no idea what happened to these two young people, and we will probably never know. But a listing in the Brooklyn phone directory, existing down to the present day, attests to the fact that someone out there hopes that another chapter of this disturbing story—perhaps a conclusive chapter—may yet be written.

Conclusion

As I stated at the end of my last blog on this subject, if you’re motivated to help with missing persons cases, follow Charley Project, Project Jason, and other similar resources. Since I’ve been publicizing these cases on my Twitter, several people now routinely re-tweet almost every one of my #disappeared links, as well as other cases that come across Twitter. Social networking is a wonderful innovation that can be harnessed to help solve these cases. If they had Twitter in 1973, for instance, isn’t it conceivable that some sort of alert could have gone out, spread virally around the web, that could have led to answers in the Bickwit-Weiser case? Or, in the crucial hours after the possibly nonexistent boy took Jovanna Crawford in 1981, might a social media push have alerted people in the community to be on the lookout, and the child might have been recovered?

We do not know. We can only do what we can do. In the meantime, hope and pray for the disappeared, and for their families who continue to wait, often decades, for their loved ones to come back home.

Thanks for reading.

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3 Comments

  1. Regarding the Michael Palmer case, have you read the “Missing 411” series of books? The shoes, the river, and the failure of the tracking dogs all fit the profile of the very strange disappearances detailed in those books.

    As for Charles Palmer, the quote you give from the news report says that the police did not find any footprints on the trail, though they did find the snowmobile. Perhaps I am misreading it, or I am missing something….but how did Charles manage to leave his snowmobile without leaving any footprints??
    That and the inclement weather forcing a premature end to the search also fit the profile of the cases in the 411 books. Perhaps there is a link in the two cases after all?

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