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THREE YOUNG GIRLS DISAPPEARED FROM A FORT WORTH MALL 26 YEARS AGO. FOR THEIR FAMILIES,
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 permission.
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?
"One thing's sure," says Rayanne Moseley, the mother of the youngest missing girl. "Somebody knows. Somebody knows for sure what happened."
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 the front.
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 her.
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 Sears.
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 in Weatherford.
The letter was on a sheet of paper wider than the envelope. Written in a childish scrawl it read:
"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 Rachel."
The original "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 eyes.
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 back roads.
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.
Rusty's childhood 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, either.
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 disappearance."
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."
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 been destroyed.
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 says.
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.
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) 390-7745 email@example.com
This post has already been read 795 times!
Originally posted 2017-12-14 00:55:15.