Tera Smith: Strange Case of a Lost Teen Girl

From last week’s case of a bizarre murder-for-hire, we turn our attention this week to a missing persons case. As heartbreaking as homicide is, an unsolved disappearance, with its lack of closure, can sometimes be worse. Such was the case of Tera Smith, a California teen who vanished over two decades ago.

Tera Smith

In 1998, Tera Lynn Smith was a 16-year-old high school student from Redding, California. She made good grades and had a lot of friends. She worked at the Oasis Fun Center, the business near their home that her parents owned and ran. In all respects, she was a typical teenager. But, like many teens, Tera also had a rebellious streak.

Tera Lynn Smith (Shasta County Sheriff's Office)
Tera Lynn Smith (Shasta County Sheriff’s Office)

August 22, 1998 was the last Saturday before the school year started. Tera was due to work at the Oasis Fun Center at 7:00 p.m. Sometime that evening, but before she was due at work, Tera decided to go for a jog. Her sister, Sierra, admonished her, since the girls weren’t supposed to leave the house alone. Tera replied that she’d be back before her parents got home. Sierra watched as Tera jogged out of sight.

Tera Smith, Missing Person

The normally reliable Tera failed to show up for her scheduled shift at the fun center. Her parents were initially unconcerned but, when she hadn’t shown up by 9:00 p.m., they called police. What investigators found was disturbing.

Tera was due at the Smith's Oasis Fun Center when she disappeared (Google Maps)
Tera was due at the Smith’s Oasis Fun Center when she disappeared (Google Maps)

The last person known to see Tera alive was 29-year-old Charles “Troy” Zink. Zink was Tera’s Tae Kwon Do instructor. But her family found letters and journal entries that strongly suggested she and Zink had a sexual relationship. Zink denied this, although he admitted seeing Tera that August day. He said Tera called and they met near her home at 6:30 p.m. According to his story, she wanted to borrow $2,000 and he refused. At her request, he dropped her off at the intersection of Old Oregon Trail and Old Alturas Road. He then drove to Hang Glider Hill, where he claims he “prayed” until 11:30.

When police dug into Zink’s background, they found he pleaded guilty to rape seven years before Tera disappeared. Searching his home, they found several guns and arrested him for violating his parole. However, they didn’t find any evidence to connect him to Tera’s disappearance.

Charles "Troy" Zink at the time of the disappearance (Hard Copy)
Charles “Troy” Zink at the time of the disappearance (Hard Copy)

Epilogue

It’s been more than twenty years since Tera Smith disappeared. If she’s alive, she would be 40 years old. Her family, however, believes she is dead. There has been no trace of Tera since that early autumn day in 1998.

The family suspects Troy Zink is more involved in the case than he admitted, which Zink denies. Police have found no evidence linking him to the disappearance. Nor have they found anything to indicate that a crime was committed. Probably, though, Tera Lynn Smith died the day she disappeared.

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Ruby Stapleton: Attractive Teacher Found Dead, Her Murder Unsolved

Last week we looked at the mysterious 1910 disappearance of Dorothy Arnold. No one ever saw Miss Arnold after December 12, 1910. This week’s case is another unsolved mystery. In 1963, a hunter found the body of popular college instructor Ruby Stapleton. Her killer was never found.

Ruby Stapleton

Ruby Stapleton née Lowrey was a native of Davenport, Nebraska. She graduated from Harding College (now Harding University) in Morrilton, Arkansas in 1926. After earning a master’s degree from the University of Oklahoma, she returned to Harding to teach. There she was popular with students and faculty. In fact, when the school moved from Morrilton to Searcy in 1934, the college put Ruby in charge of coordinating the move.

Ruby Lowrey's 1926 Harding College yearbook photo (aymag.com)
Ruby Lowrey’s 1926 Harding College yearbook photo (aymag.com)

Ruby’s husband, Emmett Raymond “Ray” Stapleton was also a member of the Harding faculty. By 1963, though, Ray had left Arkansas to accept a teaching position in Superior, Wisconsin. Although they remained married, Ruby stayed in Arkansas, living with her daughter, Mary Claire, and a niece, Clarita Bartley. Both the younger women were students at Harding College.

Ray and Ruby Stapleton appear side by side in the Harding College yearbook (aymag.com)
Ray and Ruby Stapleton appear side by side in the Harding College yearbook (aymag.com)

Ruby Stapleton Disappears

On October 8, 1963, a Tuesday, Ruby’s son, Glen, had a broken washing machine. That evening, Ruby picked up Glen’s dirty laundry and took it with hers to a laundromat in Searcy. When her daughter returned home around 10:00 p.m., Ruby was not there. Alarmed, Mary Claire called the police. Her laundry and her station wagon were still at the washateria, but there was no sign of Ruby. Ominously, someone had broken into two tire stores adjacent to the laundromat. Police wondered if the burglaries and Ruby’s abduction were related.

When Ray Stapleton learned of the disappearance, he flew to Searcy the next day. Naturally, police interviewed him, as the spouse is always suspect in a murder or disappearance. And there was another reason to be suspicious of Ray. He hadn’t left the Harding College faculty voluntarily. The college asked him to leave after he had sexual liaisons with other men. In 1963, being gay was taboo, especially in the South. Moreover, Harding had an affiliation with the Church of Christ. However, Ray’s alibi (he was in Wisconsin) checked out. Also, there was no evidence he’d conspired with or hired anybody to kill his wife.

Ruby Lowrey Stapeleton (aymag.com)
Ruby Lowrey Stapeleton (aymag.com)

Police did arrest two men in a Lubbock, Texas drugstore for phoning Ray and demanding money from him. But they were able to prove they were in Lubbock at the time of Ruby’s abduction and were only guilty of trying to extort money from her husband.

The Murder of Ruby Stapleton

Eleven days after she disappeared, 21-year-old Jerry Bass went squirrel hunting along Bull Creek. There he saw Ruby’s nude and badly decomposed body in a dry section of the creek bed just outside of Beebe, Arkansas. It appeared she’d been dead since her abduction. The fact that her killer had undressed her suggested a sexual motive. But decomposition was too far advanced to determine if she’d been sexually assaulted.

Investigators followed multiple leads, including the flimsiest of tips. They looked hard at Ray Stapleton but found no evidence connecting him to the crime. They also investigated Oren Ray Hays, a bootlegger. Hays may have been angry with Ruby for her efforts to keep alcohol out of the hands of Harding students. But in the end, police couldn’t connect him to the murder either.

A few days after Ruby’s funeral, police arrested five boys for burgling the tire stores adjacent to the laundromat. Polygraph examinations cleared to five of involvement in the Stapleton murder.

Later Investigations

There the case sat until 2013, when Heather Bates, Mary Claire’s daughter and Ruby’s granddaughter took up the case. She tried to get Ruby’s case featured on the television program Cold Justice. However, the producers would only accept cases referred by law enforcement, so Heather contacted the Arkansas State Police The ASP refused both to cooperate with Cold Justice and her request to view Ruby’s file.

Roger Burns confessed to a similar crime near Bellville, Illinois in 1965. Police could not connect him to the Arkansas murder (aymag.com)
Roger Burns confessed to a similar crime near Bellville, Illinois in 1965. Police could not connect him to the Arkansas murder (aymag.com)

Heather sued and was eventually able to see the file. It led to another possible suspect. In 1965, an army radar technician named Roger Burns confessed to abducting and killing Roseann Curran from an Illinois laundromat. The details of that crime were eerily similar to the circumstances of Ruby Stapleton’s abduction and murder. The ASP tried to determine if Burns had been stationed at a missile silo in White County, Arkansas in 1963. However, relevant records were either missing or destroyed.

Epilogue

In 2014, the ASP assigned the Ruby Stapleton case to their Special Investigations Unit, where it is today.

An undated photograph of Ruby Stapleton (nwaonline.com)
An undated photograph of Ruby Stapleton (nwaonline.com)

Today, few people outside her family and Arkansas law enforcement remember Ruby Stapleton’s murder. Unlike many other unsolved crimes, no books tell her story. You can read about it in the online About You magazine article, Most Likely to Be Murdered.

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Dorothy Arnold: Frantic Search for Beautiful Heiress

Our case last week was that of mail bomber Walter “Roy” Moody. This week’s case takes us to New York City in 1910, where heiress and socialite Dorothy Arnold mysteriously disappeared.

Dorothy Arnold

Dorothy Arnold was the daughter of Francis and Martha Parks Arnold. Her father, Francis, imported “fancy goods” and was a descendant of English passengers on the Mayflower. Her mother, Martha, had a Canadian heritage. The family was both wealthy and socially prominent.

Dorothy Harriet Camille Arnold (Library of Congress)
Dorothy Harriet Camille Arnold (Library of Congress)

Dorothy attended a private girls’ school in New York and Bryn Mawr College in Pennsylvania. After graduating from college in 1905, she moved back to New York and lived with her parents while trying to establish herself as a writer. She submitted at least two short stories to McClure’s magazine, but McClure’s rejected both. In October 1910, she asked her father if she could move to an apartment in Greenwich Village to write. Her father flatly refused; unmarried young women of prominent families did not live on their own in 1910.

 Dorothy Arnold lived in a fancy part of New York's Upper East Side much like this one, shown in 1910
Dorothy Arnold lived in a fancy part of New York’s Upper East Side much like this one, shown in 1910

Dorothy Arnold Disappears

About 11:00 on December 12, 1910, Dorothy left the family residence on 79th Street in the tony Upper East Side. She told her mother she was going to shop for a dress for her sister Marjorie’s upcoming debutante ball. At the Park & Tilford store, Dorothy charged a half-pound box of chocolates. Then she walked downtown to Brentano’s bookstore, where she bought a book of humorous essays. Leaving the bookstore, she ran into a friend, Gladys King. The two women talked for a moment, with Gladys later reporting that Dorothy seemed in good spirits.

Dorothy Arnold was last seen leaving this Manhattan bookstore
Dorothy Arnold was last seen leaving this Manhattan bookstore (Alan Aaronson/New York Daily News)

When Dorothy failed to return home for dinner, her parents began to worry. Dorothy never missed a meal without telling her family. However, fearing publicity that would be embarrassing socially, the family did not contact police. Although it’s strange to put social status above locating a missing daughter, there may have been a reason for it. A year earlier, 13-year-old Adele Boas went missing from Central Park. It turned out she had run away to Boston and her prominent Upper East Side family was scandalized and shamed in the press.

Regardless of the reason, instead of the police, the Arnold family contacted John S. Keith. Keith was a lawyer and family friend. Over the next few weeks, he searched hospitals, jails, and morgues in New York, Philadelphia, and Boston. He found no trace of Dorothy. Yet, instead of contacting the police, Keith recommended that the family hire the Pinkerton Detective Agency to investigate.

A Fruitless Investigation

Pinkerton detectives also searched hospitals and places Dorothy was known to frequent. But again, there was no trace of the missing woman. Theorizing she may have eloped, detectives searched marriage records but again found nothing.

An artist for the New York American scketched Dorothy as whe was dressed on the day she disappeared
An artist for the New York American scketched Dorothy as whe was dressed on the day she disappeared

Finally, over a month after Dorothy disappeared, her family filed a missing persons report with police. The police advised Mr. Arnold to hold a press conference, which he did, albeit reluctantly.

George "Junor" Gascom, Jr.
George “Junor” Gascom, Jr.

As the investigation progressed, reporters uncovered a romantic relationship between Dorothy Arnold and one George Griscom, Jr. Griscom was a 42-year-old engineer from a wealthy family who lived with his parents in the Kenmawr Hotel in Pittsburgh. They further discovered that in September, Dorothy had spent a week in a hotel with Griscom. She had pawned $500 worth of jewelry to pay for the week. The discovery was scandalous, but it didn’t lead to finding the missing woman. But there was no hard evidence linking Griscom to Dorothy’s disappearance.

Epilogue

Despite many reported sightings and letters purporting to be from her, no one ever saw Dorothy again. Francis Arnold, who died in 1922, spent nearly $200,000 trying to find his missing daughter. He believed she had been kidnapped the day she disappeared and murdered shortly thereafter. Dorothy’s mother, Martha, believed Dorothy was still alive. Martha died in 1928.

You can read more about the case in The Disappearance of Dorothy Arnold.

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Helen Brach: Lost Candy Heiress Leaves a Fortune

Last week we examined the mysterious disappearance of Teamsters boss Jimmy Hoffa. Hoffa’s is one of the more famous disappearing acts but there are many others. This week, we travel to the Chicago suburb of Glenview, Illinois for the case of Helen Brach. A genuine heiress, Helen vanished into thin air in 1977 following a trip to the Mayo Clinic in Rochester, Minnesota.

Helen Brach

Helen was born Helen Marie Voorhees in 1911 in the tiny town of Hopedale, Ohio, not far from Steubenville. She married her high school sweetheart in 1928 when she was 16 or 17. The marriage didn’t last, though; the couple divorced by the time she was 21.

Helen Voorhees Brach
Helen Voorhees Brach

Leaving Ohio, Helen found work in a country club in Palm Beach, Florida. There she met Frank Brach, son of Brach Candy Company founder Emil J. Brach and heir to the candy fortune. They married soon after. It was Helen’s second marriage and Frank’s third.

Frank Victor Brach
Frank Victor Brach

Soon after their marriage, the couple built a home near Miami in Fisher Island, Florida. They also bought a second home in Glenview, Illinois to be near the Brach candy factory in Chicago. However, the couple spent most of their time in South Florida. Frank died in 1970, leaving Helen a wealthy widow.

Helen Disappears

In February 1977, Helen checked into the Mayo Clinic for a routine medical checkup. On Friday, February 17, she left the clinic, ostensibly to catch a flight to Chicago. An employ of a gift shop near the clinic was the last independent witness to see Helen Brach. The crew on the commercial flight from Rochester to O’Hare did not recall seeing her on the plane.

The Brach Company building at LaSalle and Illinois in Chicago
The Brach Company building at LaSalle and Illinois in Chicago

In Chicago, however, Brach’s houseman and chauffer, Jack Matlick claimed he picked her up at O’Hare airport and drover her home. Matlick said he spent the next four days doing repairs and odd jobs around the mansion. He then took her back to O’Hare for a flight to Florida.

Jack Matlick
Jack Matlick

The problem with Matlick’s story is that nobody else saw or talked to Helen Brach. Although a focus of police investigation, authorities never charged Matlick with a crime.

Helen Brach’ and the Horse Connection

At the same time Helen Brach disappeared, the FBI was investigating a fraud ring involving thoroughbred horses. Two of the people purportedly involved were Richard Bailey and Silas Jayne. The fraud involved insuring (or over-insuring) horses and then causing their deaths. In all, 36 people were arrested and 35 of them convicted.

Richard Bailey
Richard Bailey

What did this have to do with Helen Brach? Another part of the fraud was bilking wealthy widows by encouraging them to invest in horses. Invariably, they purchasers paid too much, and the horses failed to perform as expected. If the widows suspected they’d overpaid, the fraud ring would kill the horse and assuage the widow with part of the insurance proceeds.

Silas Jayne
Silas Jayne

Helen Brach was a target of the ring. But she eventually figured out what was going on and threatened to report the fraud to the authorities. The conspirators had her killed instead.

Epilogue

Richard Bailey was charged with conspiring to kill Helen. He was acquitted of that charge but convicted of defrauding her and received a 30-year sentence. He was released from prison on July 25, 2019.

Helen Brach
Helen Brach

The horse fraud ring almost certainly caused Helen Brach’s death. Jack Matlick, her houseman/chauffeur probably had some involvement as well. However, authorities never developed sufficient evidence to charge anyone other than Bailey.

The Helen Brach case has been the subject of several books. One of these is Ken Englade’s Hot Blood. Another take on the case, Who Killed the Candy Lady? is by James Ylisela.

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