Loose ends / FAQ

May 12, 2009 

Unanswered questions drift through the investigation of Misty Copsey's 1992 disappearance. Some will never be settled, even if the case is solved. Others are muddied by conflicting information and errors in public records. A few trails were clear 17 years ago; they are overgrown now, choked by lack of follow-up and unclear memories.

This FAQ, like a compilation of deleted scenes, addresses some of those lingering questions. If readers want to pose questions, they can in our discussion forum. If new information emerges, we'll address it here.

Q: After Misty's jeans were discovered on Highway 410 on Feb. 7, 1993, subsequent searches of the area turned up nothing – what's the back story?

A: King County sheriff's investigators ran a ground search with dogs on Feb. 8, 1993 – the day after the jeans were discovered. It was somewhat disorganized, according to Puyallup police records. Multiple reports from the search refer to high winds and a spat between dog-handlers and police. The reports say search dogs had no scent to work with, because the jeans recovered the previous day weren't available. Detective Jim Doyon was supposed to bring the jeans, but he was late. Doyon brought the jeans in the afternoon, but dog handlers refused to continue searching because of the wind.

The dog-handler's report says, "lack of clothing/article belonging to missing person may have reduced effectiveness of bloodhounds." (There was only one bloodhound.)

A Feb. 12 helicopter search using an infrared scanner turned up nothing. Again, the report said high winds hampered the search. Even in perfect conditions, the search was a long shot due to the passage of time since Misty's disappearance.

Volunteers, including Cory Bober and Diana Smith, returned to the 410 site on Feb. 22. Diana found a hair pick and toothbrush that she believed belonged to Misty. She turned the items over to police. She said she was told they were useless as evidence because they had been removed from the scene.

Volunteers returned for another search on Feb. 27. Doyon joined them this time, serving as a coach and advisor. The searchers found litter and debris, including a discarded license plate that Doyon traced. He found no connection to Misty's case.

Q: Was Cory Bober ever investigated as a suspect?

A: No. Records from King County and Puyallup show no sign that Bober was questioned about his actions the night of Misty's disappearance. Bober said he was never questioned. In 1994, Puyallup police Sgt. Herm Carver asked him to take a polygraph test, and reportedly said, "You are our suspect." Bober initially agreed to take the test, but refused at the last minute, citing his distrust of police. After his refusal, there was no follow-up.

Anecdotal evidence suggests that police did not regard Bober as a serious suspect. Diana recalls detective Jim Doyon saying so. Bober recalls Doyon telling him the same thing. A November 1993 report by KING-TV's "Evening Magazine" stated that Puyallup police said Bober was not a suspect.

Bober denies involvement. He says a neighbor assaulted him the night of the disappearance, and Puyallup police responded to his 911 call. The police report of the incident, obtained by The News Tribune via public disclosure, was at filed at 1:30 a.m. Sept. 18, 1993 – a few hours after Misty disappeared. The report states that a neighbor assaulted Bober during an argument at Bober's home. The neighbor was later convicted of a misdemeanor, according to Puyallup Municipal Court records.

Bober said he was with a friend earlier in the evening. The News Tribune interviewed the friend in 2008. He said he could not remember exact dates so far in the past. He said he regularly spent his days with Bober at that time.

An anecdotal version of that information appears in a statement Diana made in 1993. It comes from an audio recording obtained by The News Tribune from true-crime author Gregg Olsen, who interviewed Diana at that time. On the recording, Diana says she spoke to Bober's friend, who told her he was with Bober the night of Misty's disappearance.

Apart from that information, there are circumstantial factors. Bober doesn't drive, according to his own statements and interviews with acquaintances. He doesn't have a driver's license and never has – The News Tribune verified that with the state Department of Licensing. He has a criminal conviction for dealing marijuana, but that's all. Records show no history of violence.

Q: Buck Copsey, Misty's father, appears only briefly in the story. Why?

A: The News Tribune interviewed Buck Copsey in fall 2008. He did not want to be quoted.

Copsey said he could not bring himself to give up hope that his daughter might still be alive. That was why he supported the runaway theory over the years, he explained. His view led to conflicts with Diana. He said he didn't want to fight those battles again.

He kept tabs on the case over the years, and continued to receive occasional updates from investigators. In 2006, Puyallup police records show Copsey provided some personal items that had belonged to Misty, in case they proved useful for forensics.

Copsey said many of the details uncovered by The News Tribune's investigation were new to him.

Q: We can see court files, too – it looks like Misty's mother, Diana Smith, was charged with DUI and harassment just a few months ago. What about that?

A: Pierce County prosecutors charged Diana Smith with DUI and felony harassment on Jan. 26.

Charging papers say she was spotted driving drunk in Spanaway shortly before midnight. Sheriff's deputies arrested her. She got belligerent and threatened to "fucking kill" a deputy, saying she knew "bikers" who would do the job. She also asked the deputy for his name and badge number, according to the probable cause statement.

Diana admits she was stopped and admits she'd been drinking. She said the deputy asked her to take a breath-alcohol test. She said she blew into the device as hard as she could, but the deputy could not get a good reading. She said the deputy characterized that as a refusal to take the test.

She said the deputy ratcheted the handcuffs so tightly that it hurt and she complained. He ignored her and she got mad. She started talking about her 17-year battle with Puyallup police. She said she later learned the deputy who arrested her had worked for the Puyallup Police Department in the past.

She is pleading not guilty in the case.

Q: Why not post all documents and records you obtained and let the public decide their veracity?

A: It's a judgment call, mostly a matter of courtesy and reasonable deference to privacy. The records are vast. They include statements from people with distant connections to the case, and numerous tips that went nowhere. Some of the information is personal, and unrelated to the investigation.

Q: What were some of the tips that went nowhere?

A: One came from Idaho, according to Puyallup police records. It suggested that Misty and Polly Klaas, a young girl abducted in California in 1993, were being held captive in a remote area of Idaho.

There is no indication that Puyallup police pursued the tip, a hearsay anecdote relayed to a police officer.

Later information proved that Klaas was not in Idaho – her remains were found in California. Her killer, Richard Allen Davis, was convicted of her murder in 1996 and sentenced to death.

Other tips came from Diana herself. Grasping at all possibilities, she asked police about possible connections between Misty and serial killers such as Robert Yates. None were found.

Q: Puyallup police believed Misty was a runaway at first – was there any evidence for that?

A: Yes and no. The evidence gathered by Puyallup police is a mixed bag of anecdotes. Police interviewed friends and neighbors who said Misty was unhappy at home and had sometimes talked of running away. In 2008, The News Tribune tracked down the individuals Puyallup police interviewed years earlier. None went to the Puyallup Fair with Misty on the night of her disappearance. None had direct knowledge of what happened that night.

One interview stands out. In fall 1993, more than a year after Misty's disappearance, Puyallup Police Sergeant Herm Carver interviewed Shawna Mendenhall, one of Misty's friends.

Mendenhall, 16 at the time, figured Misty ran away. She said Misty was a street-smart party girl and didn't get along with her mother. In his notes, Carver wrote that this wasn't the "rosy picture" Misty's mother had portrayed.

Mendenhall wrote and signed a statement saying Misty sometimes got rides from a man named Dave who drove an early ‘70s Pontiac. The statement includes a description of the man, a description of the car, the model year and a partial license plate. Puyallup police records show no sign of follow-up investigation on the man, his car, or the plate.

In 2009, The News Tribune requested data from the Department of Licensing, seeking any historical record of a vehicle that matched Mendenhall's partial description of the driver and license plate. The state provided a database of records from the timeframe of Misty's disappearance. It listed vehicles by make, color and a five-year span of model years. There was no match.

The News Tribune spoke to Mendenhall in 2008. She lives in Missouri. She said she thought Misty's mother had something to do with Misty's disappearance. Mendenhall said Misty smoked, drank and never did too well in school.

Every other account of Misty says the opposite: school records, notes from teachers, and descriptions from Misty's friends, family and acquaintances. All describe her as straight, a non-drinker, non-smoker and a good student. Her last school records from Spanaway Junior High show she got As and Bs.

Diana, asked about Mendenhall's statements, recalled a long-ago feud with Mendenhall's family.

Q: Is there any other information in Puyallup's files about Kim Delange and Anna Chebetnoy, the Puyallup girls who were killed in 1988 and 1990?

A: Yes. Both cases are unsolved and active, under King County's jurisdiction. Puyallup's case file includes material from King County's investigation of the slayings of Chebetnoy and Delange. Field reports detail the discoveries of both sets of remains and their locations, and subsequent followups. The information is dated, however; Puyallup's records of King County's investigation end in early 1993.

According to the records, Delange's remains were found within a month of her disappearance. Chebetnoy's remains were discovered more than a year after her disappearance. There was less evidence in Chebetnoy's case, which limited later forensic testing.

King County investigators (including Jim Doyon, the veteran) researched the cases and looked closely at one suspect: a reported friend of Delange's who committed suicide in 1991, according to the case file.

Another tip on Delange's case generated a suspect sketch. The tip said a girl matching Delange's description had been seen with a man in a blue-gray pickup truck at Mud Mountain Dam, a rural park near Enumclaw. The sighting came two days after Delange was last seen in Puyallup. The News Tribune's copy of the sketch (too faint for reproduction) depicted a clean-shaven, tanned white man with short hair and sunglasses. The description did not match the suspect King County investigators had examined (an African-American man).

Additional information comes from James Delange, the victim's father, who told The News Tribune that King County investigators told him DNA testing of his daughter's remains yielded no match with Gary Ridgway, the Green River Killer.

In Chebetnoy's case, information is less clear. She disappeared from the same location as Delange: a shopping center that no longer exists. The News Tribune located Chebetnoy's mother in 2008. She did not want to be interviewed or quoted. She said she had heard nothing about her daughter's disappearance from King County investigators.

Q: Is there any other information regarding Gary Ridgway's possible links to the Puyallup killings?

A: The record is murky. Because Ridgway was so prolific, he was an automatic suspect in unsolved killings of young women in the Puget Sound region. At the time of his trial, that number hovered around 150. He was convicted of 48. Prosecutors included three more victims in their statement of charges, but did not include them in the official list; Ridgway had confessed to killing the three, but the remains could not be found.

During the run-up to Ridgway's trial, his defense team referred to "Red River" victims, meaning the longer list of uncertain cases that might or might not be tied to Ridgway. The lost Puyallup girls – Delange, Chebetnoy and Misty – were part of this list.

Ridgway specifically denied taking Puyallup victims, as the story notes. For what it's worth, King County records (time cards) show he worked a full shift at his truck-painting job on Sept. 17, 1992 – the day of Misty's disappearance.

Lingering gossip in Pierce County law enforcement circles holds that prosecutors and Ridgway's defense team discussed a possible offer to admit Pierce County killings in exchange for taking the death penalty off the table – the same arrangement that applied in King County.

There is no evidence that such discussions took place. Pierce County prosecutor Gerry Horne said they did not. Mark Prothero, Ridgway's attorney, said no such offer was made.

Q: The story refers to Rheuban Schmidt's "uncle" – who is this person and what do police know about him?

A: The only certainty is that Puyallup police never talked to him. There is a name that appears in Puyallup’s records of the Copsey investigation, along with a picture, birthdate, vehicle description, and other identifying information. Police were aware of this person; the records mention him five times between 1993 and 2006 as someone with possible knowledge and a direct connection to Rheuban Schmidt.

What’s not clear is why police were looking at this individual in 1993. The records don’t explain how they got his name. Diana Smith knows the individual’s name. She cannot remember when she first heard it. She recalls telling police about the uncle and what she’d been told about him, but there are no records from the early years of the case file that describe those alleged conversations.

Police never took a formal statement from Diana at the time. Had they done so, the information about the uncle might be clearer, and police could have given themselves a reference point for future investigation. They didn’t, so the uncle has become a flashpoint for rumors in subsequent years. When police re-examined the case in 2006, the record shows that they initially confused the uncle with another man, a convicted killer, who had a very similar name.

The News Tribune researched the individual whose name appears in case records. Historical research established that he lived a few blocks from Rheuban at the time of Misty’s disappearance. Diana believes she saw this man with Rheuban in late 1992 – The News Tribune’s findings correspond with her description of the man and the vehicle he was known to be driving at the time.

However, The News Tribune chose not to publish the man’s name. It was a judgment call; the information was too sketchy. Police never interviewed the individual or looked into his movements on key dates. Apart from hearsay statements, there is no direct information to show he was with Rheuban that night. There is no direct information to show that this individual was the “family member” mentioned by Frank Rodriguez, Rheuban’s boss, during an interview with The News Tribune. What’s more, Rheuban Schmidt has a large family – the limited information about the uncle could apply to more than one relative, and the “uncle” may not be an uncle, strictly speaking.

All this gives only a glimpse of the complexities surrounding this individual. There is more to it. As a matter of courtesy, The News Tribune shared portions of its research with Puyallup police. For the moment, it will remain confidential.

Q: The TNT’s May 17 follow-up story on police response to the Copsey case notes that police never took a formal statement from Diana after her daughter disappeared, though they spoke to her regularly. If they talked to her, doesn’t that mean they took a statement? What’s the difference?

A: The difference is precision. A formal interview with Diana could have been a reference point to compare against later statements gathered during the investigation.

Puyallup’s case file includes three different police reports filed within a week of Misty’s disappearance. Here’s the chronological order:

– a Pierce County sheriff’s report, filed on Sept. 18, 1992, the day after the disappearance (later relayed to Puyallup police)
– a Puyallup police report, filed on Sept. 23, 1992, six days after the disappearance
– a Pierce County sheriff’s report, filed on Sept. 24, 1992, seven days after the disappearance (relayed to Puyallup police)

In each case, Diana is the reporting party. In each case, the reported details of the disappearance are slightly different:

1. The Sept. 18 report briefly notes that Misty went to the fair with Trina Bevard, and mentions Misty’s last phone call to her mother. “Misty called and told her mother she had found a ride home with a friend she had run into at the fair,” it states.

This isn’t how Diana remembers it – she recalls Misty saying she thought she could get a ride from Rheuban Schmidt, not that she had “run into” him at the fair. Trina Bevard’s later statements to police support Diana’s recollection. The girls didn’t see Rheuban –they called him.

In any event, the report shows that from the day after the disappearance, police were aware of a friend who might have given Misty a ride – a friend police didn’t interview for more than five months.

2. The Sept. 23 report, taken by Puyallup police, does not mention Misty’s last phone call or the hoped-for ride from a friend. It includes more detail about Trina (relying on Diana’s account), and notes that Trina walked home from the fair. It briefly mentions the Pierce Transit bus driver who last saw Misty (again relying on Diana’s account).

3. The Sept. 24 report, taken by a part-time civilian employee in the county sheriff’s runaway division, is the longest of the three. However, it does not mention Misty’s last phone call to her mother. It goes into some detail regarding Trina’s movements that night, and it is the first report on the Copsey case that references interviews with people other than Diana. The other parties were Misty’s father, Diana’s sister, and Trina’s guardian.

Those are the records – there is no sign of a subsequent formal interview with Diana Smith by Puyallup police that might have reconciled the jumbled details and provided direction for investigation. Diana recalls telling police about her conversations with Trina, Rheuban and his roommate, James Tinsley, but the investigative record shows police took no immediate action. They didn’t speak to Trina or Rheuban for more than five months. They didn’t speak to Tinsley for almost a year. The reasons for that inaction are unclear.

Model investigative procedures developed by the National Center for Missing and Exploited Children explain the value of early interviews:

“Officers need to immediately record witness information, not only for general investigative use but also before witnesses forget or speak to others who may confuse or make suggestions about what was actually observed.”

The procedures note that early interviews provide a baseline for later fact-checking:

“When preliminary investigative steps have been taken, investigators should ‘compare notes’ with the first responder, fellow investigators and other agency personnel to identify and work through conflicting information. This collaborative evaluation will provide the investigative staff with a solid foundation upon which to structure future case directions.”

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