Come June it will be 30 years, and still they are lost.
Stacy McCall, Suzie Streeter, and Suzie’s mother, Sherrill Levitt, vanished from a home at 1717 E. Delmar St. in the early hours of Sunday, June 7, 1992. Stacy and Suzie had just graduated from Kickapoo High School. They planned to go to White Water in Branson to continue celebrating the best weekend of their lives.
For anyone living in the Ozarks in 1992, the case is a Kennedy moment. You remember where you were when you heard they were gone. You remember the billboards and the fliers, the horizontal handbills printed on yellow paper with the smiling faces of Sherrill, Suzie and Stacy and a one-word, all-caps headline: MISSING.
You remember how the newspaper ran a box with their faces and the number of days since they were taken, and when it hit 365, then 990, you wondered if the women would ever be found.
Today is day 10,917.
June 7 will mark 30 years since three women were abducted from a home at 1717 E. Delmar St. in Springfield. Despite nearly 5,000 tips to police, the case remains unsolved.
Now, thanks to a podcast, the story is getting fresh attention. Theories and lists of possible suspects abound. Can a new generation of digital sleuths solve the city’s most enduring mystery?
June 7 is the 30th anniversary of the crime, and with it comes rekindled interest in the case, courtesy of a well-received podcast and a new generation of amateur sleuths determined to solve the mystery they call The Springfield Three.
Drew Stephens, 26, is one of them. He’s an insurance broker by day, a missing-women investigator by night.
“We have to break this case open,” he says. “I was born and raised in Springfield and it seems like this has always hung over the city. We’re not going to get past it until we solve it.”
Why a Gen-Zer is obsessed with this 1992 case
Stephens is surprised he feels this way. He wasn’t alive when the women were taken. Until a few months ago, he had never heard of the case.
“And I grew up here,” Stephens says. “My parents never talked about it. There’s nothing at Kickapoo that even mentions it happening. No memorial, nothing.”
His introduction to the biggest crime in Springfield history came through a podcast, “The Springfield Three: A Small Town Disappearance.” Its writer and host is Anne Roderique-Jones, a writer who grew up in Springfield. She was 12 when the women vanished and the story never left her, not even when she moved to the East Coast to become a writer.
“I remember talking about this case to a few of my friends from New York City and they were captivated and couldn’t understand why or how, like so many of us,” she says.
“I toyed around with the idea of a book,” Roderique-Jones says, “but after listening to a true-crime podcast one morning on a long run, it occurred to me that this could be an incredible platform for the Three Missing Women story.” She went from writing about boutique hotels and bridesmaid dresses to investigating a cold crime case.
“Right now, we’re at over a million downloads and climbing, in less than a year,” she says. “To be completely honest, I didn’t know what to expect. This was my first time dipping a toe into podcasting, and I partnered with a team, Edit Audio, that understood the importance of accuracy and respect. We wanted to tell the story to the best of our ability and let others involved tell their stories, without sensationalizing the disappearance. To see that over one million people have listened to this is a surprise.”
That a guy like Stephens — not a news junkie, more into working out and skiing — is one of those listeners is ratifying for Roderique-Jones. “A new generation and fresh brains means that even more people are hearing about this disappearance, and that was sort of the goal here,” she says. “Those of us who grew up with this case might look at it differently than those who didn’t see it unfolding in real-time. I’m hoping that a motivated guy in his 20s is able to offer a fresh perspective to the case with a more keen eye.”
Stephens is motivated. He began as a listener to the podcast early this year but has moved well beyond fandom. He now spends most nights going over old newspaper clippings and TV newscasts. He’s even interviewed some of the people who were there in 1992, people who knew Suzie and Stacy and have spent 30 years doing what Stephens is doing now — trying to figure out what happened, and why.
He has submerged himself in the minutiae of the case. He’s gone down more rabbit holes than he can count, trying to suss out clues to the mystery.
The Springfield Three case has attracted a community of amateur sleuths
Stephens is anguished when he thinks about Stacy and Suzie. He remembers his own graduation from Kickapoo. He was nervous, excited. Hopeful. “Thinking it would be my last night alive … that’s creepy. But that was their graduation night,” he says. “Best night of their lives turns into the worst night of their lives, and no one ever hears from them again.”
It’s that last part that elevates the crime from a cold case to a modern ghost story, says Kelly Kaczala, a journalist at The Press Newspapers in Millbury, Ohio. Kaczala and Dave Schlesing run a Facebook group, Missing Persons & Cold Cases of Southwest Missouri. Its main focus is on the missing women case. The private group now has more than 11,000 members, less than a year after its creation.
“It’s the ultimate mystery: How do three people disappear from a house in the middle of the night, and never be heard from again?” Kaczala has been asking the question since 2013, when she saw a story about the case on a syndicated true-crime show. “It hooked me from the start and has never let go,” she says.
Members of the Missing Persons group are mostly from Missouri, Kaczala says. “Or they lived in Springfield on June 7, 1992, and moved to another state,” she says. “It shows what a huge impact this case made on their lives. They need to know what happened.”
They need it to make sense. “People just don’t disappear, never to be heard from again,” she says. “People try to make sense of things. It’s human nature. And when we can’t make sense of something this significant, it haunts us.”
What happened during the early hours of June 7, 1992?
Timeline of events
Saturday, June 6, 1992, 6 p.m.: Kickapoo High School seniors Suzie Streeter and Stacy McCall graduate at Hammons Student Center. The teens plan to meet at a friend’s house in Battlefield and go to Branson.
8:15-8:30 p.m.: Suzie and Stacy arrive separately at the friend’s house in Battlefield.
9:30 p.m.: Sherrill Levitt talks with a friend on the telephone. Levitt tells her friend she’s been stripping a chair and hanging a wallpaper border in her home at 1717 E. Delmar St.
Sunday, June 7, 12:15 a.m.: Suzie and Stacy join other friends and go to a party in the 1500 block of East Hanover Street in southeast Springfield.
1:50 a.m.: Police break up the party on Hanover. Stacy and Suzie head back to Battlefield.
2:15 a.m.: Stacy and Suzie decide to spend the night at Suzie’s house on East Delmar. Police think they arrived around 2:30 a.m.
7:30 a.m.: Friends start to call the house on Delmar. They get no answer. Within five hours they begin to gather at Levitt’s house; over the next several hours, up to 18 people go in and out of the house before police are called around 9 p.m.
Monday, June 8, 2:50 a.m.: Police report No. 920169 is filed, the first of what would become thousands of reports about the missing women.
SOURCE: This timeline is based on early police and news reports on the events of June 6-8, 1992.
“It will haunt me for the rest of my life,” says Mark Webb. Today he’s the police chief in Bolivar. In 1992, he was a Springfield police sergeant and the first lead investigator of the vanishings.
As soon as he read the four pages of police report No. 920169 on Monday morning, June 8, Webb knew the case would be huge and hugely difficult.
The women had vanished sometime after 3 a.m. on Sunday, June 7. When Stacy and Suzie didn’t answer repeated phone calls, their friends began to converge that afternoon at the house on Delmar. They looked around and noticed that Sherrill’s bed looked slept in. Stacy’s clothes from Saturday night were neatly folded. On the headboard of Suzie’s bed they noticed an ashtray, a soda can, and a Dr. Seuss book: Oh, the Places You’ll Go!
They saw three cars in the driveway, three sets of keys in the house, three purses in a cluster on the steps to Suzie’s bedroom, and all of it was in stark contrast to what they didn’t see: the three women.
No one could grasp what had happened so they acted like nothing had. They swept up glass shards from a broken front-porch light. They washed glasses, dumped ashtrays, walked from room to room. “We did some light straightening up,” one of the friends told police. By then 18 people had been inside the house. The crime scene was contaminated.
The rumor mill was already in overdrive, sending investigators down dead ends. The girls planned to run away and join the Army. Sherrill and the teens took a flight to Vegas. Or caught a bus. One of Suzie’s boyfriends is missing, too. Police had to follow the tips before they could discount them.
They didn’t have much else to go on.
Detectives and investigators at the time did have a chief they didn’t much like, and some feel his choices bungled the investigation early on. He was a former FBI agent and had been director of the Kansas Bureau of Investigation. He talked about his experience dealing with kidnappings and, before too long, he changed the way the missing-women investigation was managed. Instead of running down leads, detectives were assigned tip cards and discouraged from sharing information with colleagues.
With no clear motive — no clear idea of who took the women, and why, and where — the investigation sputtered. After the first year, there was one detective assigned to the case. After two years, the county prosecutor called witnesses and presented evidence to a grand jury, but no one was charged. Three months shy of the third anniversary, police said they had run out of leads. They pulled the lone detective from the case.
Webb says the micromanaging mess ended his career in Springfield. The case ended his ability to stop second-guessing. Even after 30 years he still wonders: did we miss something?
How a case goes cold
The answer from today’s digital sleuths is “yes.”
Many fault cops for basically clearing suspects after they’d passed polygraphs in the first days of the investigation.
“It’s like the police never went back to them after they passed lie-detector tests,” Stephens says.
Kaczala agrees: “The fact that police stopped investigating suspects if they passed a polygraph may be the main reason this case has been cold for 30 years.”
Officially, police say no one has been cleared. Leads simply fizzled into dead ends.
In interviews, sources for this story often referred to the killer as a “he,” but obviously no one actually knows the gender.
Kaczala and Stephens also agree that the kidnapper(s) caught a break from the 18 people who entered the Delmar Street house before police were called. “He got help from an unintentional cleaning crew,” Stephens says. “Who knows what evidence got wiped away, literally? Or what evidence they didn’t check because the crime scene was contaminated?”
It’s a popular refrain among keyboard detectives living in an era where you can binge all the flavors of “CSI” every night on a cable network. It’s also an example of how different the world was in 1992. CSI wouldn’t premiere on network television for another eight years.
Original missing persons report filed June 8, 1992
Stephens boggles at the ways of the old world. Cassette decks in cars pulsing Kris Kross from the speakers. Cigarettes everywhere. “Stacy and Suzie are at a party that the cops break up at almost 2 a.m.,” Stephens says. “There’s people on the lawn. Beer cans on the street, bro! And the cops make everyone pick up the cans and go home. That’s it!” No arrests, no tickets for minors in possession.
A less urgent, less uptight time. That’s how the early 1990s comes across to Stephens. No cell phones meant no easy way to get hold of someone. No texts, no social.
No wonder some actions taken then seem so jarring now. The first friend to discover the empty house on Delmar didn’t call the police; she went to a Springfield water park. After Stacy’s mother couldn’t reach her by landline, she went on an afternoon family outing to Lake Springfield. She was worried but not scared.
It wasn’t until she got back home that she learned Stacy’s car was in the circle drive on Delmar, right behind Suzie’s, and no one had heard from the girls or Sherrill Levitt. She drove there and found Stacy’s purse and belongings. Her makeup. The medicine to fight her migraines and depression.
The sun started to set and it dawned on Janis McCall that something terrible had happened.
Springfield in the 1990s
In her podcast, Roderique-Jones describes a Springfield in 1992 that was more like a big small town than a small big city — a place to raise a family, not a fuss.
About 141,000 people lived here then vs. today’s population of about 170,000. Murders were uncommon — the year before the women were taken, cops investigated a total of four slayings — but the metro had a history of disturbing crimes, several involving violence against women:
- In April 1987, a woman named Debbie Sue Lewis vanished from her car along U.S. 160 near the airport. The driver’s door on her Volkswagen was open. The lights were on and Lewis’ purse and keys were inside. Months later her skeleton was found; her killer was not.
- Also unsolved at the time was the June 1985 death of Jackie Johns of Nixa. Like Lewis, her car had been found along U.S. 160, purse and keys inside. The killer had beaten her and dumped her body in Lake Springfield (DNA evidence later tied Gerald Carnahan to the crime).
Longtime Springfieldians like to reminisce about leaving their doors unlocked at night. But when Sherrill Levitt moved into the house on Delmar in the spring of 1992, one of the first things she did was install deadbolt locks on the doors. She had her reasons.
Police learned that one of Suzie’s ex-boyfriends hit her and slashed her car tires. Another robbed a grave while tripping on acid. By his own admission, her brother, Bartt, was on the outs with both Suzie and their mom. He pointedly wasn’t invited to Suzie’s graduation.
Police investigated whispers that Suzie was targeted because she owed $40,000 to a drug dealer in a local motorcycle gang. Police found “some evidence of the Streeter girl being a recreational or experimental user,” but said there was nothing to the story about a drug debt.
It was one of nearly 5,000 leads tracked down by investigators. One hundred of those tips came from psychics. Webb remembers a dog psychic who said they could communicate with Suzie and Sherrill’s pet Yorkie, Cinnamon. It was the sort of nonsense Webb had come to expect from a case that made no sense.
Missing women: Theories and investigations into The Springfield Three cold case
Since 1992, Springfield police — and a swath of amateur sleuths — have wondered what happened to The Springfield Three.
When split decisions haunt you
The Springfield Three is still an open investigation, of course. Police expect a few new tips soon, as mainstream and social media make note of the 30th anniversary of the case.
Those with personal ties to the case don’t need a milestone as a reminder.
Brian Joy’s role in the story was small but profound. He had hung out with Suzie and Stacy in Battlefield before they jetted to another party, and he’d told them they could crash at his place; his parents were out of town. But it was after 2 a.m. when they returned and knocked on his door.
“I was asleep and a little pissed off,” Joy remembers. “I told them they couldn’t stay.” He stops talking, the weight of a split-second choice still heavy after 30 years. If Joy had told them it was cool to crash there, then Suzie and Stacy probably wouldn’t have gone to the house on Delmar. They would have woken up to Sunday sunshine, gone to White Water in Branson, and enjoyed their first day after graduation.
“I said they couldn’t stay and they left,” Joy says. “You know the rest of the story.”
Mark Webb, the first investigator on the case, doesn’t think the crime will be solved, absent a confession accompanied by compelling proof.
Kelly Kaczala calls herself an “eternal optimist.” All it will take to solve the case, she says, is one change of heart.
“Someone knows what happened and I think it has weighed heavily on their shoulders for three decades,” Kaczala says. “People’s lives change over time. You have children, grandchildren. As you age, perhaps you want some sort of absolution for your sins; a clear conscience. You want to make peace with your God.”
It could be a witness who was too afraid to come forward in 1992, she says. Or maybe it’ll be an ex-wife. Or maybe even the man who took them.
Drew Stephens plans to keep poring over clues. He says if he solves the case he’ll take the reward money and build a memorial to the Springfield Three at Kickapoo High School. “They deserve so much more,” he says. “They deserved to live. We can’t forget them.”
The Springfield Police Department has a webpage about the women. No frills, just 459 words describing the crime and the victims, with 26 words devoted to the status of the case: an extensive investigation into the lives of the missing women has been conducted with no positive leads concerning the reason for their disappearance or their location.