The Stolen Child in print: What happened to Misty?

May 17, 2009 

It takes one sentence to tell Misty Copsey’s story: She disappeared 17 years ago after a visit to the Puyallup Fair and was never seen again.

But there is more to it than that. There is loss, grief and rage – and a mother’s 17-year war with a police department that repeatedly dismissed her.

Diana Smith does not forget, and she does not forgive. Puyallup police called her dishonest. They repeatedly said her daughter was just a runaway – a refugee from a fractured home. Diana told them no, for years, over and over. They wouldn’t believe her.

And there is even more – a long, sad saga that reflects information culled from hours of interviews, research and the police case file on Misty’s disappearance, obtained by The News Tribune via public disclosure.

The saga starts like this: Once there was a 14-year-old girl named Misty.

OFF TO THE FAIR

In 1992, she’d just started the eighth grade at Spanaway Lake Junior High School. She was a good student, earning more A’s than B’s.

She was 5 feet 9 inches tall, with blond hair and green eyes – a straight arrow, according to her friends. No smoking, no drinking, no sex. An athlete, too – volleyball, softball, basketball. She was the joker in her group of friends – the one who skipped and sang.

On Sept. 17, 1992, she went to the Puyallup Fair with her best friend, Trina Bevard, 15.

Misty had pleaded for the trip. Diana said no at first – she worked nights as a caregiver for an invalid and couldn’t give the girls a ride home. She wilted in the heat of teen lobbying. Misty said she could take a bus home at 8:40 p.m.

“You can trust me, Mom,” she said. “I’m responsible.”

Grudgingly, Diana agreed to be the cool mom. Let it go, she told herself. She also lent Misty her new jeans – a fancy, stonewashed pair.

She dropped the girls off at 3:30 near the fairgrounds, but she couldn’t resist one more warning.

“You guys better not screw this up,” she told them again. The girls rolled their eyes.

Diana sighed and dropped them off.

“I love you, baby,” she said.

“Love you, Mom,” Misty replied, walking away with Trina.

Diana watched. Her daughter looked so small in those baggy jeans.

She shook off the maternal pangs and drove to work.

She never saw Misty again.

NO RIDE HOME

Around 8:45 p.m., Diana got a phone call at work.

“Mom, I missed the bus,” Misty said, sounding upset.

She thought she could get a ride from Rheuban Schmidt, her 18-year-old friend who had a car.

“No – you’re not doing that,” Diana said. “I don’t want you getting a ride from that kid. I don’t like that kid. Call somebody else. Then you call me back.”

“OK, Mom.”

“You promise me, Misty. You call me back.”

“I will. I promise.”

Diana waited all night. The call never came.

The next morning, she rushed home to an empty house. Misty was gone.

“Nine-one-one, what are you reporting?”

Diana said her daughter hadn’t come home from the fair. The dispatcher said it sounded like a runaway case – police couldn’t do anything for 30 days. Diana filed a report with the Pierce County Sheriff’s Department.

She called Trina. No answer. She called Rheuban Schmidt. Yeah, he said – Misty called for a ride, but he didn’t go get her because he didn’t have enough gas.

Trina, home from school, called Diana back later that afternoon.

“Where’s Misty?” Diana asked in a rush.

“I don’t know.”

Trina said she’d walked home, leaving Misty at the bus stop.

Diana called Rheuban again. He wasn’t home. His roommate, James Tinsley, answered the phone. Diana asked whether Rheuban had been home all night.

“No,” she remembers Tinsley saying. “Him and his uncle went to pick up Misty.”

Diana called again, looking for Rheuban. She found him. He said his roommate was wrong. He’d gone to a party that night. Hadn’t picked up Misty. Didn’t know where she was.

Diana printed fliers and posted them. She filed a missing-person report with Puyallup police, who told her not to worry. She worried, anyway.

TWO IMPRESSIONS

Misty had been missing for a week. On Sept. 24, Pierce County sheriff’s Capt. Gary Smith sent the report on Misty to Puyallup police Sgt. Herm Carver, along with a personal note.

“This is one of those ‘jus’ don’t feel right’ reports. There is nothing here that points positively to foul play; it just don’t feel right,” Smith wrote.

Carver reviewed the report and checked Diana’s background. He interviewed Buck Copsey, Diana’s ex-husband. The couple had divorced years earlier.

Carver was thinking runaway. Everything he learned reinforced that impression.

The home looked unsettled. The mother drank. She had a couple of DUIs and a 1985 welfare fraud conviction.

Carver saw proof of dishonesty. He noted that Diana had filed a runaway report in August, only a few weeks before Misty disappeared.

The report was wrong – Diana thought Misty was gone, then found her in the bedroom. She was too embarrassed to tell police it was a false alarm.

On Sept. 29, 12 days after the disappearance, Carver interviewed a pair of eighth-grade girls at Spanaway Junior High who didn’t know Misty well and hadn’t been to the fair with her. One thought she’d heard from Misty after the disappearance. The other thought she’d seen her in a crowd.

Diana recalls the interview.

“Are you sure it was Misty?” Diana asked one of the girls. “Did she say it was Misty?”

“No,” the girl admitted.

“How do you know it was Misty?”

“Well, it sounded like her.”

The rumors satisfied Carver. He told Diana the search was over. Misty would be crossed off the list at the FBI’s National Crime Information Center.

“I advised Diana Copsey that I was removing Misty Copsey from NCIC as a missing person – as I believe her to be a runaway,” he wrote.

On that basis, Puyallup police temporarily closed the case. Carver spoke to a radio station the next day, and said Misty was alive and well and that her mother knew where she was.

Diana listened to the broadcast in helpless fury.

Misty had been missing for 13 days. She wasn’t home. She hadn’t called. Diana had no idea where to find her.

Businesses took down her fliers. The media started ignoring her. The runaway label stuck.

Police hadn’t interviewed Trina, or Rheuban or a Pierce Transit bus driver who had seen Misty that evening.

MOM FINDS AN ALLY

A few days later, Diana met Cory Bober – an encounter that led to a strange, 17-year alliance.

Bober, a Puyallup resident and amateur researcher, had been looking into cases of murdered and missing young women for years.

He believed a one-time acquaintance of his was the Green River Killer, and he had compiled mountains of documentary evidence to support his theory, though police had long since rejected it. (Bober’s suspect was not Gary Ridgway, who was convicted of the serial slayings years later.)

It turned out that Bober had predicted Misty’s disappearance to Puyallup police and the Sheriff’s Department. He based his guess on the calendar: Two other Puyallup girls, Kim Delange and Anna Chebetnoy, had been slain in 1988 and 1990, two years and one month apart. Misty’s disappearance fit the timing.

Diana, frustrated by the inaction of police, began to take Bober seriously. He said his suspect killed Delange and Chebetnoy and left their remains on Highway 410, east of Enumclaw.

Misty would be found there, too, Bober said. Diana was suspicious, but she wondered if he could be right.

ANOTHER CRIME

Months passed. October, November, December. Misty was still missing, and Puyallup police had made no progress, interviewed no witnesses.

Bober led multiple searches at Highway 410, but found nothing.

In January, Robert Leslie Hickey, 28, abducted a 15-year-old girl near the Puyallup Fairgrounds, raped her and threw her into a ravine. The victim survived. Hickey was convicted of first-degree rape.

The abduction site was five blocks from the last known sighting of Misty. Puyallup police never questioned Hickey about her disappearance.

JEANS FOUND

On Feb. 7, 1993, Bober led a team of searchers to a remote spot east of milepost 30 on Highway 410.

The site was an entrance to Weyco Mainline Road, a utility drive east of a rural park at Mud Mountain Dam.

Not far from the gate, one of the searchers, a 14-year-old boy, poked in the eastern ditch with a stick. In the dirt, he saw something – a mound of blue fabric, the unmistakable weave of denim, crumpled in a little pile. “Hey, there’s some clothes here,” he said.

The boy hooked the bundle out of the ditch and flipped it to the ground.

Diana stared at the pile of dirty fabric. Baggy, stone-washed jeans, light blue.

She grabbed her hair and made a sound. The jeans were hers, Diana realized – the fancy pair she bought the previous summer.

The pair Misty borrowed to wear to the fair.

“It was like everything drained from her,” recalled her older sister, Debra, who was there that day.

CHANGES AND QUESTIONS

Everything had changed.

For five months, Puyallup police had said Misty was a runaway. Now she looked like a murder victim.

The discovery brought King County sheriff’s detectives into the case, but it also generated suspicion. Puyallup police knew Bober, and did not trust him. Records show that they suspected a plant – possibly a conspiracy between Diana and Bober, though both denied it.

– Why weren’t clothes strewn about?

– taken off of victim and placed there?

– planted?

– if still on victim – wouldn’t be found like that!

Carver’s notes, Feb. 7, 1993

That night, Diana thought about the police. That made it worse. She cracked another beer and thought some more.

It wasn’t right. Five months Misty had been gone – almost six.

Runaway, the cops had said. Diana told them no, over and over, but they wouldn’t listen.

And now Misty was really gone.

“I knew she was gone,” Diana remembers. “I knew it and I was pissed at them, I was so pissed – I was like, ‘Damn you.’”

Media stories played up the discovery of the jeans. One Feb. 11 broadcast noted that Puyallup police said they had “run down every lead” in the case.

At the time of the broadcast, police hadn’t interviewed a single witness who saw or spoke to Misty the night of the disappearance, according to their case files.

FINALLY SOME INTERVIEWS

The discovery forced police to launch a full-blown investigation of Misty’s disappearance. King County detective Jim Doyon, a veteran who had spent years working on the Green River investigation, made the first move.

On Feb. 24, he interviewed Trina Bevard, Misty’s best friend who had gone to the fair with her. Five months had passed since Misty’s disappearance. The interview marked the first formal attempt to interview a witness who had been with Misty that night.

Trina said she and Misty had called Rheuban Schmidt for a ride that night. Rheuban had said no, he had no gas. Misty told him how to get into her house in Spanaway and get gas money out of her bedroom. Rheuban still refused, Trina said.

Police never told Diana about the disclosure, and never asked whether she’d noticed signs of a break-in at her home.

In Puyallup, detectives began to look at Rheuban. Carver spoke to his boss, Frank Rodriguez, who owned a restaurant on Pacific Avenue where Rheuban sometimes worked.

Rodriguez told police Rheuban talked a lot about Misty. He recalled several statements Rheuban made about the disappearance:

– Yeah, I know about it.

– I know exactly where she is buried.

– They found the clothes but she is buried 6 miles from there.

– They’re off by 6 or 61/2 miles.

(Excerpt from Carver’s notes)

Carver and his partner, detective Tom Matison, confronted Rheuban on March 4. He ran from police initially, reports state.

He said Misty called him twice the night of the disappearance. First time, he told her he had no gas.

She called back, told him how to get into her house and get gas money. He said no.

Rheuban admitted his statements about the disappearance. He was just talking big to get his boss “off his back,” he explained.

He said he had a blackout and couldn’t remember anything after Misty’s last phone call. He said he had driven to his grandmother’s 100-acre farm in Buckley the following day. Why? He couldn’t remember.

The farm, investigators later learned, was about 8 miles from where Misty’s jeans were found.

“When asked if he could have blacked out – picked up Misty … harmed her – he replied that he didn’t know,” Carver’s notes state. “When asked if he drove to his grandmother’s with Misty in the trunk of his green Chevy Nova – he replied, ‘I couldn’t touch a dead body.’”

Rheuban said he’d had blackouts since childhood. He asked if a polygraph test or hypnotist could help him remember what he did that night.

No problem, detectives said.

Rheuban took a polygraph test March 8 at the sheriff’s office. The result was inconclusive.

He slipped into a trance during the process, according to detectives’ notes.

“Schmidt was ‘putting himself to sleep’ during the actual test, which may have altered the results,” Matison wrote later. “… It was apparent that he was trying to manipulate the results.”

Police did not interview anyone who had been with Rheuban that night. A day after his inconclusive polygraph test, they were diverted by another lead.

STORY CHANGES

The lead came from Trina Bevard. She revealed to a friend that she had not walked home from the fair as she told police. Her boyfriend, Michael Rhyner, who was 23, had picked her up and driven her home.

Learning of Rhyner’s possible connection to the case, police examined him closely for several months. They interviewed his acquaintances, re-interviewed Trina, and secretly purchased the car Rhyner had been driving the night of the disappearance: a blue 1981 Ford Escort.

State crime lab technicians combed the car, seeking traces of Misty. Evidence from the car was compared to evidence from the jeans. No matches were found.

A note in the state crime lab report filed at the time reflected Puyallup’s continuing doubts about Diana.

“Puyallup thinks that Mother may have planted clothing,” the document reads.

Police interviewed Rhyner, who denied involvement in Misty’s disappearance. He took and passed a polygraph test. Police crossed him off the suspect list.

In September 1993, one year after Misty’s disappearance, police took another look at Rheuban Schmidt.

MORE INFORMATION

The renewed police interest revolved around James Tinsley, a Spanaway teen. Rheuban had been staying at Tinsley’s home at the time of Misty’s disappearance.

In an interview with police, Tinsley, 15, said Misty had called Rheuban looking for a ride home. Rheuban, who had a 13-year-old girlfriend with him, refused at first.

Tinsley said Rheuban sounded like he wanted to pick up Misty, but the girlfriend protested. She left soon after that.

Then, Tinsley said, Rheuban got in his car and left.

Matison: Did he say where he was going?

Tinsley: No, he just, left, just, weird cause he usually either tells me or he takes me and he just left.

– Matison’s notes

Rheuban returned later that night when Tinsley was sleeping. He did not tell Tinsley where he had been.

The story furnished a new, cryptic detail. During the vital hours when Misty disappeared, Rheuban was gone.

Police later confronted Rheuban. He admitted leaving Tinsley’s place that night, but said he could not remember what he did. He admitted driving to his grandmother’s farm in Buckley that night, but he couldn’t remember why.

He had originally told police he didn’t have enough gas to drive 16 miles to the fair. By his own admission, he had driven to Buckley and back that night – almost 60 miles.

Police drove Rheuban to his grandmother’s farm in Buckley.

This is approx. 6+ miles from the river north of Buckley (King/Pierce border). Rheuban thought the clothes were found at that location by the bridge, in actuality the alleged clothes were several miles further down Hwy 410 past Mud Mountain Dam.

This was interesting as he had told his employer Rodriguez that Misty’s body was actually buried from 6 to 61/2 miles from the clothes; which would put it area of his Grandmother’s farm.

He had originally told us that he woke up at the farm the next morning. Grandmother was not home at the time.

– Matison’s notes, Sept. 8, 1993

Police checked on Rheuban’s car – the green Nova. They learned it had been destroyed at a wrecking yard in June. Police had known of the car’s existence since February, according to their records. They hadn’t bothered to track it down.

There was no search at the Buckley property. Police gave Rheuban another polygraph test. He passed.

“It appears that Rheuban Schmidt was not involved in the disappearance of Misty Copsey,” Matison wrote.

COLD CASE

Rheuban’s elimination marked the beginning of the end of Puyallup’s investigation.

News stories updating the case quoted Carver. He said he saw little to support theories of foul play, and stated the discovery of the jeans “was not helpful.”

The case file shows limited activity after that, though police asked Diana Smith to take a polygraph test in early 1994. Police exonerated her of any involvement in her daughter’s disappearance, but Carver remained suspicious.

He (Carver) believes that possibly Misty’s mother was inconclusive on the results of the polygraph because she had something to do with placing the clothing up on Hwy. 410, which was identified as the clothing Misty was wearing at the time of her disappearance.

– Excerpt from case file

Six years passed. Misty’s case turned cold. In 2000, Diana, aided by Bober, persuaded the Pierce County Medical Examiner to issue a death certificate for Misty. Puyallup police also furnished information that contributed to the decision.

With Bober’s help, Diana held a memorial service, but the case remained unsolved.

GREEN RIVER

The 2001 arrest and subsequent conviction of Gary Ridgway, the Green River Killer, prompted new inquiries in Misty’s case.

Ridgway denied taking victims from Pierce County or Puyallup. Forensic tests cast further doubt on his involvement in Misty’s disappearance and the deaths of Kim Delange and Anna Chebetnoy, the two slain Puyallup girls.

A DNA test in Delange’s case ruled out Ridgway, according to information obtained by The News Tribune. Related tests of fibers and debris from Delange, Chebetnoy and Misty’s jeans also found no match with Ridgway.

Another test compared red paint chips culled from Misty’s jeans to paint evidence gathered in the Ridgway investigation. There was no match.

The same tests addressed a crucial question regarding Misty’s case. The debris from Delange and Chebetnoy was compared to debris culled from Misty’s jeans. There was no match.

For years, investigators from King County and Puyallup (along with Bober and Diana) assumed a link between Misty’s disappearance and the slayings of Delange and Chebetnoy, according to their records.

The crime lab test showed no such connection.

OTHER AVENUES

In 2005, Diana and Bober tried to persuade the Washington State Patrol to take over the case – Bober’s idea. Diana went along, writing a letter to John Batiste, the State Patrol chief.

“Please override the Puyallup police and take this case away from them.” Diana wrote. “I am asking you to now enact your jurisdictional authority over the Puyallup Police and seize this investigation in its entirety.”

The State Patrol responded: Request denied.

Diana hired a private investigator in summer 2006. The retainer – $453 – bought a set of Internet searches and a few pages of court records.

An August 2006 meeting with Puyallup police didn’t help. Diana asked questions. Police told her it was an old case.

She walked out and slammed the door.

LOST EVIDENCE

The red paint chips from Misty’s jeans resurfaced when Puyallup police agreed to conduct a forensic test demanded by Bober, who believed they would show a link to his longtime suspect.

Police requested the test in 2005, but the process revealed a glitch: The paint chips collected from Misty’s jeans in 1993 were missing. State crime lab technician Terry McAdam discovered their absence when he tried to conduct the test in 2007. The evidence packets were empty.

The paint-chip evidence had been in King County custody since 1993. A sheriff’s spokesman refused to comment on the missing paint chips, citing the open investigation.

One test was never conducted: DNA analysis of hairs recovered from Misty’s jeans.

A 2006 crime lab report concluded that the six hairs were suitable for DNA testing. The tests could determine whether any of the hairs were Misty’s – or perhaps reveal the genetic fingerprint of a killer.

The possibility of a DNA test was relayed to Puyallup police in early 2007.

The crime lab hasn’t conducted the test for one simple reason: No one has asked.

“Any police agency could ask,” said McAdam, the forensic scientist. “There’s no indication that it’s ever been requested.”

NO CLOSURE

Diana’s missing daughter haunts her house. Misty’s face smiles from every wall.

There is a possibility Diana hates to consider. The killer roams free forever – no justice.

Sometimes answers don’t come. Sometimes the right thing doesn’t happen.

If that’s how it goes, if Puyallup police never solve the case, what does she want?

She thinks, and retraces 17 years. What police told her and didn’t tell her.

Runaway.

Disbelief. Discredit. Disrespect.

Runaway.

They always said they cared. Always said they did everything they could.

That’s not how it feels.

“I want them to admit they screwed up,” she says.

EPILOGUE

Grief – I never thought the pain would go away or get any less. And when it started to lessen, I felt overwhelming guilt as if I were a cold, uncaring person. A really bad mother. As if I were being untrue to Misty’s memory.

To keep getting by in this mortal life I had to put that memory in a very special spot in my soul. And hold it dear. Because it’s not supposed to stay foremost while I am still living … it needs to be kept in that special spot to be protected.

I love you Misty. Mom.

– Diana’s journal

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