The Springfield Three

Date Published 09.27.07
The detective on the phone wanted to remain anonymous. Yes, he said, he’d worked on the case, but it had been a life-changing one, and the failure to solve it still plagued him like a dull ache. How did it change his life? “Not for the better,” he said.

The case was so perplexing that at one point a lead investigator allegedly threw up his hands and suggested maybe aliens were to blame.

The detective cautioned against even writing about the story. He’d seen people -- normal, logical people -- become obsessed. Good advice, but it was too late.

Graduation Night

Stacy McCall and Suzie Streeter had been childhood friends. By the time they entered Kickapoo High School, in Springfield, Missouri, they’d drifted apart. In pictures Stacy looks preppy and hesitant. She planned to attend college and pledge a sorority. Suzie, her hair bleached blonde, reportedly hung out with a rowdier crowd. She intended to follow in her hairdresser mother’s footsteps and go to cosmetology school.

The end of high school has a way of dissolving cliques and reuniting old friends, and by June 6, 1992, the night of their graduation, Stacy and Suzie were hanging out again.


From left to right: Stacy McCall and Suzie Streeter

Graduation day had been filled with gowns and endless posing for cameras, but the night would be different. The girls had a plan. Along with another friend from childhood, Janelle Kirby, they would attend several parties; later, they would drive an hour or so to a hotel in Branson, close to the White Water amusement park they planned to visit the next morning. Stacy’s parents weren’t happy about the late night drive. They were relieved when she called around 10:30 p.m. and said plans had changed. They’d decided to play it safe and stay overnight at Janelle’s, leaving for the amusement park in the morning.

The three girls left their last graduation party close to 2 a.m. and headed back to Janelle’s. But Janelle’s family had relatives from out of town staying overnight, so plans changed again. Suzie’s mother had given her a king-size waterbed as a graduation present, and Suzie and Stacy agreed it would probably be more comfortable if they stayed at Suzie’s. No big deal. They would meet up with Janelle in the morning.

Kathy Kirby, Janelle’s mother, later said she heard Suzie and Stacy talking outside near their cars. “Follow me to my house,” Suzie said to her friend.

1717 E. Delmar Street

Suzie lived with her mother, Sherrill Levitt, 47, in a modest house in central Springfield. Sherrill, an in-demand hairdresser at a local salon, was a single mother and especially close to her only daughter. They reportedly shared everything and had a loving relationship.

Earlier in the evening Sherrill had talked with a friend on the phone, telling her that Suzie was away for the night and she planned to varnish some furniture and hang wallpaper in the home she and her daughter had lived in for only two months. The friend said Sherrill sounded normal and never indicated anything was amiss.

The next morning Janelle began calling Suzie's house at 8 a.m. but her friends didn’ t pick up. Still sleeping, she thought. By noon, she decided to drive over to Suzie’s house with her boyfriend and see what was keeping them.

It was a clear June morning; temperatures would rise to nearly 80 degrees. Janelle got out of the car barefoot and approached the house. Something shimmering on the front steps caught her eye: broken glass. The porch globe was shattered, but the bulb still burned. Her boyfriend swept away the glass while Janelle tried to reach anyone inside. No one answered. But they had to be there, Janelle thought, noticing the three women’s cars still parked in the driveway. She peered through the living room window. Neat. Normal.

Janelle and her boyfriend tentatively cracked open the front door. Sherrill’s Yorkie Cinnamon lunged at her, barking and anxious. They walked through the rooms of the house, calling for their friends. A television was on. The three women’s purses were piled on the steps of Suzie’s sunken bedroom. Janelle experienced the first flutters of concern when she noticed that Suzie and Sherrill, both chain smokers, had left behind their cigarettes.

Janelle and her boyfriend made calls. Hours passed. Stacy’s worried parents came over. Friends and relatives flooded the house, discussing what to do next. Eventually the police arrived. In their report police noted that a woman and two teen-age girls were missing. Their purses had been left behind, along with their car keys and cars. It appeared that the two girls had gotten ready for bed -- evidence of washed-off makeup was in the bathroom, and Stacy had folded her shorts and placed them on her shoes beside Suzie’s waterbed.

The shorts worried Stacy’s mother. Wherever Stacy is, her mother thought, she’s in a t-shirt and underwear.

There were no clear signs of a struggle or crime. The state of the house told an incomplete, but troubling, story. The porch globe had been broken. Two slats in the window blinds had been separated, as if someone was looking out.

Panic swelled, but everyone tried to remain optimistic. A graduation cake left untouched in the refrigerator ("Congrats Suz!") was a reminder of the joyous celebration just a day before. Police left a small blue note on the front door. “When you get in, please call 864-1810 and cancel the missing persons report.”

But Stacy, Suzie and Sherrill never came back. The missing persons report was never canceled. That was fifteen years ago.



Questions, but Few Answers

How do a woman and two teen-age girls vanish from a house on a summer morning?

No one knows. But it’s not for lack of trying, says the detective. “Aspects of the case were mishandled, maybe, but never out of indifference. Everyone worked their butts off to solve this.”

Over the years the Springfield Police have interviewed, dug, polygraph tested -- just about every verb associated with criminal investigation has been done, he said.



One of the most enduring clues involves a suspicious van witnesses reported seeing near the Levitt home. Some said a dirty white van had been cruising the neighborhood in the weeks before the disappearance; another said they saw a brown, older model Dodge van near the home in the early morning hours of June 7. The most intriguing van sighting was from a woman who said she was on her porch enjoying the sunrise when a moss green, older model Dodge van pulled into the driveway next door. A young blonde woman who looked like Suzie Streeter was at the wheel. The woman heard a man’s voice say, “Don’t do anything stupid.”

While some investigators feel strongly about the van reports, the detective said he was "never completely comfortable with it.” He couldn’t put his finger on it, but finally said the invisible man’s voice, and what he said, sounded too much like something from a movie. “Listen, maybe it went down that way,” he said. “I just don’t know.”

It's a common refrain in a case riddled with incomplete and contradictory evidence. One question leads to yet another, with few answers. Every possible motive has major holes in it.

For example:

1. It seems significant that Sherrill was supposed to be alone that night. But if Sherrill was the target, then why not abduct her during the many hours when she was alone, and not after the two girls arrived?

2. If Sherrill wasn’t the target, and it was one or both of the girls, how does their stay at the house, last minute and unplanned, fit with that?

3. Robbery isn't a likely motive. The house was located near much wealthier homes. A significant amount of cash was left in Sherrill’s purse. And wouldn’t three cars have deterred a potential intruder?

4. Sherill was security conscious. There was no sign of forced entry. That suggests a suspect whom at least one of the women trusted and knew. But personally-motivated crimes normally involve one perpetrator. Could one person have restrained three women, abducting them without leaving behind a single hair, fiber, or fingerprint?

Many people believe they know one man who could.

Suspect

He claims he sat in his truck and watched the Springfield police process the crime scene. “Why watch it on television when you can watch it in person?” he allegedly said. If it’s true, the man who would one day become the prime suspect was, in the early days, following the case from across the street.


The Crime Scene: 1717 E. Delmar Street

Robert Craig Cox’s history of violence officially begins in 1978. Back then he was a 19-year-old Army Ranger on vacation in central Florida with his parents. On the night of December 30 Cox returned to his motel room bleeding from the mouth. He was missing an inch of his tongue.

Emergency surgery was required to repair the tongue. Cox claimed he’d been in a fight and bit it himself; hospital staff thought it was more consistent with someone else having bitten it.

Five days later the badly beaten body of Sharon Zellers, 19, was found in a sewer next to Cox’s motel. She’d disappeared the night of December 30 while driving home from her job at Disney World.

Police let Cox go for lack of evidence. He went on to win a Soldier of the Year award. Then, in 1985, Cox was suspected of two separate abduction attempts of young women in or near their cars in California. He pled guilty and received a nine-year prison term.

In the meantime, prosecutors in Florida had amassed evidence against him in the Zellers case. They arrested him while he was in prison and brought him to Florida to stand trial. He was convicted and sentenced to death. But in 1989, the Florida Supreme Court ruled that, at best, the evidence created “only a suspicion” of guilt, and Cox was acquitted and released.

Cox returned to California to serve out the rest of his sentence, was paroled, and returned to live with his parents back in his hometown: Springfield, Missouri.

Kathee Baird is one of a group of determined people who are using the Internet to try and solve the mystery of the missing Springfield women. She maintains a MySpace page about the case. She says she’s been criticized and labeled a “quack” but she doesn’t care - the story haunts her, and she’s determined to give it an ending. Sometimes her voice breaks when she talks about the missing women.

Kathee believes Cox is a prime suspect. She’s communicated with him, and says that when he was asked how such a crime could be carried out, Cox answered, “If I were going to do it, I’d knock on the door and say there was a utility emergency.”

In the summer of 1992 Cox worked as a utility locator in south-central Springfield.

At first Cox appeared to have an airtight alibi. His girlfriend confirmed that he was at church with her the morning the women disappeared.

But then in 1995 Cox was arrested for holding a gun on a 12-year-old girl during a robbery in Texas. Springfield police interviewed him again about the missing women. Cox implied, teased, suggested, but never confessed. His ex-girlfriend eventually recanted - Cox had asked her to lie for him, she testified to a grand jury.

But Springfield police never gathered enough evidence for an indictment. Cox, as though reading from a bad horror movie script, continued to play with detectives from his jail cell in Texas. He hinted he knew the women were dead and that they’re buried somewhere near Springfield.

Kathee Baird doesn’t think he’s bluffing. She says that on the morning Cox was to be sentenced for his Texas conviction he slit his wrists in a suicide attempt; a Texas Ranger later told Kathee that Cox had said, “as long as I’m in prison, murders like what happened to those women in Missouri won’t happen again.”

Incomplete Puzzle

There are other suspects, like local businessman Gerald Carnahan who was recently arrested for the 1985 murder of a young woman named Jackie Johns. And others, men on the periphery of the missing women’s lives who possibly caused trouble there. But, like everything else in the case, suspicions are murky and half-formed at best. Those close to the case are left with what they know for sure, which is very little.

Certain details of the case call out to people. For Kathee Baird, it’s Sherill Levitt’s house - how far back from the road it is, how dark and out of the way. “You wouldn’t know it was there,” she said. This was no random opportunity hit.

For the detective, it’s the interviews he conducted. At some point it struck him that not one of the people he interviewed could keep something quiet for fifteen minutes, let alone fifteen years. He’s inclined to think one man is to blame.

The detective recalls how, trying to fall asleep late at night, he’d go over the scene at Sherill Levitt’s house in his mind; over and over he’d imagine the girls parking their cars, walking into the house, Stacy carefully folding her shorts as they got ready for bed. He always hoped he’d have a breakthrough and see a scenario of the abduction that made sense to him. His mind always went blank.

“Well, stranger things have happened,” someone once said to the detective in a half-hearted attempt to comfort him about the case.

“No,” the detective said. “They haven’t.”


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