Long gone, still sought: The search for Misty Copsey

Staff writerAugust 19, 2011 

The problem with Misty Copsey's disappearance is the same problem it's always been: no body, no traces to help Puyallup police figure out what happened to her.

She went to the Puyallup Fair on Sept. 17, 1992, a 14-year-old goody-two-shoes on a girl's night out with her best friend.

She never came home.

Her mother, Diana Smith, reported the disappearance to police, fearing Misty had been kidnapped and killed.

The case got screwed up after that.

A generation ago, police insisted Misty was a runaway. They discounted Smith's fears and questioned her honesty.

They conducted a cursory investigation and suspended it for flimsy reasons. They let potential evidence slip away, misled the public and failed to interview key witnesses for almost six months.

For years afterward, they hinted that Misty was just a runaway from a troubled home, alienating her mother permanently.

That talk is over now. Police are investigating a homicide. They've spent two years revisiting the Copsey case. They've assigned a team to review every inch of it.

In 2009, a News Tribune series, "The Stolen Child," exposed gaps, miscues and oversights in the original inquiry. Spurred by the story, a new generation of investigators rebooted the case.

They've re-interviewed every available witness. They've spoken to old suspects and new ones. They've interviewed the original investigators. They've consulted with the FBI, following a template of best practices governing cold-case methods.

They've gathered forensic evidence originally scattered among four agencies, sought and obtained DNA analysis where possible and built a file that could serve as a foundation for a prosecutor if the right moment comes.

The effort leads to the same empty space: no right moment. No forensic clincher. No long-suppressed confession. No body. "We need a spark," Deputy Chief Bryan Jeter said. "Somebody knows, is the bottom line."

REBUILDING THE FILE

Police have cleaned up a chaotic case file, which sounds trivial. It wasn't.

In 2009, the Copsey case was a heap: a generation's worth of records gathered over 17 years by detectives and police officers from one city and two counties.

There was no index. File folders jumbled in six banker's boxes. Reports, correspondence, photographs and transcripts mingled in mounds, all of it on paper.

It had to be rebuilt, reviewed page by page, cross-referenced along with new information, and digitized for computer reading.

The scut work fell to Jason Visnaw, a detective who spent much of the past two years reorganizing the file, retracing the players, digging for old leads and chasing new ones, aided by a trio of commanders: Sgt. Ryan Portmann, Capt. Scott Engle, and Capt. Dave McDonald.

Visnaw is a silent sort with close-cropped blonde hair, built like a linebacker. On detail questions, the commanders look to him. He rubs his head and reels off the answers. He knows the murder book.

"You can't underestimate the amount of work Jason did on this case," Jeter said.

LOST OPPORTUNITIES

There are some things police can't get back. They can't recover the first 48 hours, the critical moments after Misty disappeared, when memories were fresh, witnesses were handy and secrets were being buried. They can't fix the mistakes of their predecessors.

For Misty's mother, those wounds have never healed.

"I've finally come to the point where I know that I can't do anything," Smith said. "It's just the way it is. Nothing I can do."

The cops look like boys to her now. Two of them hadn't graduated high school when Misty disappeared. The new words are the same as the old: Trust us.

She can't do it. They know. It's understood.

They said the same things in the old days, and they screwed up in the old days. They said they cared then. They say they care now. Words don't matter – only resolution matters.

Smith follows the news in a small way. Any story of discovered remains pulls her like a magnet. She's all over it every time, asking questions: Is it Misty? Are they looking? Are they checking? How are they checking? Who's doing the checking? Are they hiding something? Do they know what they're doing?

So many times, she has been sure, absolutely certain. When the remains of a young woman surfaced near Cle Elum last September, she knew it was Misty.

Early reports said the woman had been in her teens or 20s, about 5 feet 9, with blonde hair. It had to be Misty. They would identify her, the test results would prove it, and that would be it, and why were they taking so long? She waited. So did Puyallup police, plugged in through the law-enforcement pipeline.

The answer came in June. Smith was wrong. The dead woman was Kerry M. May, 22, someone else's daughter, lost in 1972, 20 years before Misty.

Smith wants to be involved, to vet every move Puyallup investigators make. It doesn't work that way. She knows. She's been told for 19 years.

"It just so discourages me," she said.

PREDATORS

Misty Copsey vanished in a crowd: a small city of 26,000 momentarily besieged by a horde of out-of-town fairgoers, workers and hangers-on that fattened Puyallup's population to four times its size.

She was unlucky, a fawn in the wrong meadow. When she disappeared, at least six sex killers and predators roamed within 20 miles of the fairgrounds. That's a conservative estimate; it includes only the big names and the known unknowns.

Among them were Gary Ridgway, the Green River Killer; Terapon Adhahn, a convicted sex offender who would abduct and rape an 11-year-old girl in 2000, and snatch and kill a Tacoma girl in 2007; and Timothy Ray Burkhart, now deceased, lately identified as the most prolific serial killer in Pierce County.

There are circumstantial reasons to exclude all three, and equally valid circumstantial reasons to include them.

Other killers lurked behind them in shadows, less known, no less dangerous. Without Misty's body, none can be ruled out for certain.

One killer, still unknown, had snatched and slain two Puyallup girls, Kimberly Delange and Anna Chebetnoy, in 1988 and 1990. The girls disappeared from the same downtown shopping center. Their remains were found in the same wooded thicket near Enumclaw, 25 miles away. The recovery sites were 100 feet apart, according to public records.

Did that killer take Misty, too? The idea has always been part of the working theory of the case. It's a reasonable inference, but that's all.

"What is clear is that there was somebody around here taking girls off the street," Portmann said. "Whether that person's associated with Misty, we don't know."

The known and unknown predators sit in the outlying list of possible suspects, rimming the inner circle of people who spoke to Misty or saw her that night. Without a body and associated evidence, without a location, it's tough to rule them out.

"Until there's a body discovery or a confession, and neither of those two things have happened, they're all still in the circle," McDonald said.

A NEW INVESTIGATION

Along with the outlying suspects, there are the main players – the people who saw or spoke to Misty that night, and the people who spoke to those people.

Police have re-interviewed all of them – some more than once, some with the backing of new polygraph tests. They've interviewed people they didn't interview before; old figures who went unnoticed in the early days, new ones identified through research.

Several times, they have interviewed Trina Bevard, Misty's best friend, who went with her to the fair.

The disappearance starts with Bevard. The two girls parted in downtown Puyallup about 8:45 p.m., after Misty called her mother in a minor panic, saying she'd missed her bus home.

The girls decided to split up. Bevard had walked toward her house in Sumner. Misty stayed in Puyallup, hoping to catch a later bus.

The next sighting was about 9:20 p.m. A Pierce Transit driver remembered seeing Misty at the bus stop downtown, and telling her there were no more buses to Spanaway. Misty reportedly walked away, downcast.

The last sighting, never fully confirmed, was about 10 p.m. The tip surfaced on television in January 1993, four months after Misty disappeared. KOMO-TV's "Northwest Afternoon," an afternoon talk show, examined the case in front of a studio audience.

Diana Smith was a guest. Bevard was in the audience. Two sheriff's detectives from King and Pierce counties, Jim Doyon and Jim O'Hern, also appeared.

The show invited calls and tips. A woman named Tammy called in and said she and her friend Angela had seen a girl matching Misty's description walking south on Meridian, Puyallup's main drag, near a 7-Eleven store.

Police recently recovered a tape of the broadcast, long thought lost.

(Above is a clip of the broadcast. Click here for a longer segment.)

"She looked kind of sad, you know, she looked like she was crying," the caller said. "She was walking with her head down. We didn't go up and talk to her or nothing, but maybe we should have. … She just looked totally distressed, like she was in trouble."

It adds to the chronology, but it's another lost opportunity. The caller was never interviewed or identified.

Two homicide detectives were in the audience. The show's hosts asked Tammy to speak to police after the show. She said she would. It didn't happen.

"The show's producers apparently lost her (or she grew tired of waiting and hung up), before anyone in law enforcement had a chance to speak with her," McDonald said in a recent e-mail to The News Tribune. "Very unfortunate."

POSSIBLE EVIDENCE

The case took a strange turn a week after the broadcast. On Feb. 7, 1993, Smith and a group of volunteers found what appeared to be Misty's jeans, socks and underwear in a ditch along state Route 410, not far from the site where the two slain Puyallup girls had been found.

The searchers took cues from Cory Bober, a Puyallup man who had researched numerous cases of missing women for years and devised his own theories about the Green River Killer.

Police didn't like Bober and he didn't like them. In the early '90s, he was one of many Green River tipsters with a pet theory, and one of the most persistent.

After Misty's disappearance, Bober befriended Smith, hounded police on her behalf and argued that Misty was one of the killer's victims, just like the other Puyallup girls. He believed Misty's remains would be found on Highway 410, like DeLange and Chebetnoy. He organized multiple searches.

Records of the case state Bober was considered a suspect at one time (a Puyallup police officer told him so to his face), but other records say he's no longer a suspect.

The jeans discovery turned the case upside down and led to controversy. Puyallup cops scoffed from the start. They accused Bober and Smith of planting the clothing. Both angrily denied it.

Smith was adamant; these were her jeans, a fancy, stone-washed pair she'd bought on Sixth Avenue in Tacoma. She recognized the distinctive stitching. Misty had borrowed the jeans to look grown-up at the fair, but she had to roll up the cuffs.

The cuffs of the discovered jeans were rolled up. The socks and underwear were blue and white: the colors Misty had worn.

A few weeks later, detective Jim Doyon interviewed Bevard. He showed her a picture of the jeans. Bevard started crying, according to records. She said they looked like the pair Misty wore to the fair.

Genuine or not, the jeans forced the first right moves in the case. Investigators from two counties finally looked more deeply at Misty's disappearance. They started interviewing witnesses – six months late.

RETRACING THE CASE

During their recently rebooted investigation, police retraced the jeans and the developments that followed.

The jeans are the biggest piece in a puzzle of forensic evidence gathered and scattered through multiple agencies. Police reassembled the fragments, threading their way through multiple chains of custody.

"Every piece of evidence we have has been examined or re-examined," Engle said. "That's a major accomplishment from where we stand."

Misty's case spills across two counties and four cop shops: She vanished from the city of Puyallup, but her disappearance was first reported to the Pierce County Sheriff's Department. The discovery of the jeans on state Route 410 pulled the King County Sheriff's Office and the Washington State Patrol crime lab into the mix.

The jeans remain an anomaly. So far, no forensic test has tied them to Misty. The only links are Diana Smith's word and Trina Bevard's tears.

The News Tribune's 2009 series noted several hairs recovered from the jeans hadn't been tested for DNA purposes, and other debris from the jeans, including paint chips, appeared to have been lost.

Puyallup police, working with the state crime lab, ordered tests of the hairs and found the paint chips, which now are thought be fragments of nail polish.

FOOTNOTE: More discussion of the paint chip evidence.

Another loose end handled, another box checked, and it isn't helping.

The hairs from the jeans don't match Misty's DNA. They don't match Smith's at a secondary level. They don't match profiles of killers and predators already entered into law-enforcement systems. There is no independent way to prove Misty or her mother ever wore them.

"As much as we can do with current technology has been done with those jeans," Portmann said.

PERSONS OF INTEREST

Another key component of the new investigation focused on Rheuban Schmidt and Michael Rhyner, two men with ties to Misty and Tina Bevard. Both are directly linked to the night of the disappearance.

Schmidt, 18 at the time, spoke to Misty on the phone at least once – records suggest more than once. He was a friend. Misty called him to ask for a ride home. Earlier, he had promised to give her a ride, case records say.

Misty had made the arrangement without her mother's knowledge – but Schmidt backed out when Misty called, saying he didn't have enough gas to pick her up. Two witnesses – Bevard and Schmidt's roommate – overheard the telephone conversation at either end, records say.

The records also note a witness later heard Schmidt boast of his involvement in Misty's disappearance.

"I know exactly where she is buried," Schmidt reportedly said.

The witness was Frank Rodriguez, Schmidt's employer, who died recently. (The News Tribune interviewed Rodriguez before his death. He repeated the account he'd given police in 1993.)

When police tried to interview Schmidt in March 1993, he ran. They caught up with him a few hours later. He admitted his boasts, but said he'd just been talking big to get his boss off his back.

He told the story of the phone call from Misty and having no gas. He said Misty had called him back and given instructions about how to break into her house and take money from her piggy bank for gas. (Smith, Misty's mother, was gone that night, working elsewhere.)

Schmidt also said he remembered driving to his grandmother's 100-acre farm in Buckley that night, but he couldn't remember why. He said he'd blacked out after that and couldn't remember anything else.

The farm was about eight miles from where the jeans were discovered. Schmidt admitted telling Misty he didn't have the gas to pick her up at the fair, 16 miles away, but he also admitted driving to Buckley and back the same night – roughly 60 miles.

Schmidt volunteered for a polygraph test at the time. During the test he said he couldn't remember his actions that night. Records state the test results were inconclusive, but police believed Schmidt was trying to beat the machine by relaxing into a trance-like state, nearly falling asleep.

Police interviewed Schmidt again in September 1993, after hearing a story from his former roommate that Schmidt had left his apartment late on the night of the disappearance, and returned hours later without explanation.

Schmidt took another polygraph test. Again, he said he couldn't remember what he'd done that night. The results indicated he was telling the truth about not being able to remember.

The new investigation took another look at Schmidt, now 37. Police interviewed him again. He cooperated, investigators say, providing a full statement and a DNA sample.

Police will not disclose the details of Schmidt's statement, but they say he denies involvement. They have re-examined the results of his first polygraph test, and checked them with new analysts. The review indicates Schmidt told the truth about not remembering his actions the night of Misty's disappearance.

Police also re-interviewed Schmidt's old roommate – years of drug use and dissipation have clouded his memory, they said.

Police took the inquiry a step further. In September 2010, and again in May of this year, they searched the Schmidt family farm in Buckley, combing the grounds with a large group of volunteers. A family member granted access and spoke to police.

The site is remote, forested in some sections, with a stream running through it. Police say they found numerous animal bones and other debris, but nothing definitive. The evidence has been sent to the state crime lab for analysis.

Michael Rhyner, the other suspect tied to the night of the disappearance, was Trina Bevard's boyfriend. He was 23 at the time, and he had a criminal record, mostly minor drug offenses.

In 1993, police discovered Bevard had lied about walking home the night Misty disappeared. In fact, Rhyner had picked her up and taken her home to Sumner.

Police gave Rhyner plenty of attention in 1993. At one point, he was the prime suspect. He was interviewed, and denied involvement.

During the rebooted investigation, police spoke to him again, and gave him a new polygraph test. He passed, and denied involvement.

ANOTHER LEAD

The old case files yielded numerous tips that went untouched in the 1990s.

One promising lead came from The News Tribune. Buried in the case file, it dates to late March 1993. A tipster had called a reporter and said he'd seen Misty get into a car with a man late one night at the Puyallup Fair.

The informant refused to give his name or phone number. He said he'd been in Alaska for months, returned and seen news coverage of Misty's case, which jogged a memory from the previous fall.

The informant couldn't remember the exact date, but he named the driver and the type of car the man drove, a yellow Chrysler Cordoba. He said he was "98 percent certain" of what he'd seen.

The tip was so specific the reporter relayed it to a King County sheriff's detective, who wrote a report.

"(The informant) said that when the girl he believes was Misty approached the Cordoba, she leaned in to talk, but then got a startled look, looked around, and then got in the car."
—King County Sheriff's report, March 22, 1993

The man the informant named was a convicted sex offender from Tacoma, a guy with an off-again, on-again limp who worked at a local auto detailing shop. The informant had been a customer at the shop, and recognized the man's face.

The tipster with Alaska ties was never identified. Records of the original investigation (1992-93) show that King County detectives researched the offender's background, and shared the information with Puyallup police – however, no one from either agency interviewed the offender at the time.

The News Tribune is not naming the offender because he was never charged or interviewed in connection with Misty's case at the time.

He still lives in the Tacoma area. He was 33 when Misty disappeared. His 1990 conviction involved the sexual assault of a 13-year-old relative, according to court records. At the time of Misty's disappearance, he'd finished his sentence and been released from prison.

In the rebooted investigation, police took a closer look at the offender. He'd worked numerous odd jobs, including occasional stints as a security guard, possibly in Puyallup. He drove several different cars and had personal ties to the Fair.

Police recently interviewed the offender. He denied involvement. Without further information, or access to the unidentified tipster, whom police still hope to find, the lead is stalled.

THE RIGHT STEPS

"As we go forward, we'll continue to look at any loose ends," Portmann said. "If Misty shows up tomorrow, we've hopefully answered all the questions up to date. We have a binder we could take to the prosecutor."

The News Tribune spoke to three cold-case experts about Puyallup's recent efforts. One expert was local, two from out of the area. None wanted to speak for the record, but all said the steps Puyallup police have taken made sense.

"It sounds like they're doing everything right," one expert said.

"Sounds to me like they're taking it seriously and doing what they need to do," another expert said. "Unfortunately for them, it's going to be very slow. It's going to be a total pain-in-the-ass process."

Diana Smith has followed the course of the new investigation as much as she can, which isn't much. She's not privy to each new detail; police don't give her regular updates.

The old suspicions never fade. She wants to believe, but she can't summon the strength.

"There was a whole lot more chance back then for them to come up with something then there is now," she said.

Police say they haven't given up.

"This case will not go away for us," Portmann said. "This will always be part of us. We will always continue to push this case forward – and hopefully come up with a resolution."

Longer clip of 1993 "Northwest Afternoon" broadcast.

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