An old Dodge Charger with the remains of two victims has been recovered from an area lake in the latest Winnebago County Mystery. This entry picks up where the last one left off.
After the remains of the victims were safely removed and on their way to the Midwest Medical Examiner’s Office in Anoka County, our team vigilantly worked to remove every item, mucky as they were, from the inside of the car, including the glove box and the trunk. It was painstaking. At three o’clock, Captain Randolph phoned Smoke to tell him he had ordered pizzas, and we all needed to take a break. I hadn’t though about eating since the granola bar and yogurt I’d had for breakfast. The mention of food made my stomach growl in response.
“You guys go ahead. There are only a couple more items to mark, and then I’ll secure this cart of things in the evidence room,” Matsen said.
“I’ll help you,” Mason told him.
“And if someone could hang a ‘do not enter’ sign on both the outside of the garage doors and on the inside entrance, that’d be good,” Matsen added.
“I’ll do that,” Weber said.
Smoke and I got out of our coveralls then I followed him to his desk and waited while he gave the sheriff’s cell phone another try. “I know Randolph has half the county looking for him, but I keep thinkin’ he’s gonna answer one of these times.”
“Should I call my mom again?”
“Maybe you should.”
When Mother answered the phone, I could tell she was flustered. But it wasn’t because she hadn’t talked to Denny Twardy. “Corinne, people are flocking in for the winter clearance sale. I haven’t had a chance to catch my breath all day. I should have scheduled one of my helpers to work today. I never dreamed I’d be so swamped. It hasn’t been busy enough to keep two of us busy lately.”
“Well, in one way that’s a good thing, huh? Mother, I’m checking to see if you’ve heard from Denny, or if you remembered he had an appointment, or something, after all.”
“Oh my goodness. No, I haven’t, and I was going to call him, but haven’t had a chance. Why, what’s wrong?”
“We don’t know if there is anything wrong. It’s just that we’ve got a big investigation here and we don’t know where he is.”
“Corinne, I hear the concern in your voice. Now you’ve got me worried.”
“Mother, there’s got to be a good explanation. Take care of your business and if Denny calls, or stops in, tell him to call the office, okay?”
“Okay. But Corinne—”
“I have to go now, but I’ll talk to you a little later. Bye.” I hung up before she could pump me for more information, and then shook my head back and forth at Smoke.
Smoke bounced his fist on his desk. “Our deputies certainly know his vehicle.”
“And Randolph said they checked his house.”
“Yeah, but it wouldn’t hurt to check again.” Smoke phoned him and learned deputies had made several stops at the sheriff’s house throughout the day. “Well, let’s get some nourishment, and figure out our next course of action. We need to talk to Tommy’s and Wendy’s families, that’s a given. And I’d like to run over to Ramsey to see how Doc Bridey Patrick’s team is doing on that end. But since there are only so many hours in a day, that’s not going to happen today. First off, we’ll pull the original missing persons file and review it.”
“I definitely want to read that.”
“Then talk to the families.”
“Right. Besides notifying them a-sap about what we got so far, we’ll need them to help us make positive identification.”
“Besides DNA, I’m wondering about dental records. I don’t suppose they’d have any after all these years. Do you remember the legal requirement for a dentist to keep them? Is it six years, seven years?”
“I remember from a past case I was on that it’s six years after a patient’s last visit. And I know a few of the old docs that never throw anything away. We won’t know for sure until we check.”
“We need to ask the families for DNA samples so the medical examiner has them for comparison.”
“We’ve come a long way, baby.” Smoke put his hand between my shoulder blades and gave me a mild push. “Let’s go scarf down some pizza.”
After running through each detail of the steps involved in recovering the old Dodge Charger from Whitetail Lake with about a dozen sheriff’s department personnel, between bites and swallows of a late, lukewarm lunch, Smoke and I broke away from the group and headed toward the records room.
“Since the case files go back to the beginning of time, they need to make room in the drawers from time to time and archive the old ones. I’ll take a look in the computer to see if the one we need has been moved to a storage box yet.” Smoke sat down at the computer and typed in Tommy Fryor’s name. I resisted looking over his shoulder, and instead checked my phone for messages in the minute it took Smoke to pull up the information.
“Yup. It’s in the storeroom with the other records from that year. In box number Seventy-three dash nine, which makes sense since it happened in the ninth month.” He logged off the computer, stood up, and pulled a set of keys from his pocket.
I followed him to the door of the records room and waited while he keyed in. The storeroom was about twenty feet by thirty feet and held cardboard boxes on shelves that started from a foot off the floor and climbed to a foot from the ceiling. We located the one we were looking for on the west wall, six feet up. I grabbed the ladder that was equipped with wheels and rolled it to the shelf. Smoke jumped on the first rung, climbed up a few feet then hooked his hand on the opening in the front of a box and pulled it toward him. He held it in one hand and climbed back down. I took it from him and carried it to the table in the center of the room. “This is heavy,” I said as I heaved the box down.
“The Fryor-Everton case alone must weigh a few pounds.”
Smoke lifted the cover off the box and was able to find the file with a quick glance. He reached in with both hands and pulled out the five inch expandable file that was filled to limit with papers. He laid it on the table. “Divide and conquer?” he said.
I set the box on the floor, giving us room to spread out the papers as needed. “Holy man, I mean, where do we begin?”
“Same as always, one step at a time, one page at a time.”
I reached over, picked up the top half of the pile, set it down then slid onto the chair behind it. A little shiver ran through me, and it wasn’t because it was a cold case. It often happened to me when I worked to solve a mystery, most notably a crime. “Someone interviewed in here knows something.”
“That would not surprise me. We just gotta figure out who it is.”
Smoke’s phone rang. “Dawes. . . . You don’t say. Well then, I will come out there and talk to him.”
“What?” I asked when he’d disconnected.
“Darwin Fryor—Tommy’s dad—wants to talk to us.”
“Word zips around pretty fast.”
“With or without social media. I’ll meet him at the front and take him to my cubicle where we can talk. It’ll be less formal than an interview room. You want to join us?”
I stood up. “Yes I do.”
Smoke left and I made sure the door was secure when I closed it behind me. I waited in the corridor outside his cubicle for the two of them, and when they walked toward me, I was caught slightly off guard by Mr. Fryor’s appearance. He appeared to be around my Gramps Brandt’s age, but he looked even more feeble. He was bent over at the waist and his spine was twisted so one hip had a forward tilt and the other was tilted more to the back. He had to swing his right leg in a painful looking way to walk.
After introductions, we settled in around Smoke’s desk and I held my breath while Mr. Fryor sat down, knowing it must be a challenge for him. He let go of a drawn out “huh” when he was finally in the chair. Smoke sat behind his desk and I pulled up a chair on Mr. Fryor’s side.
“I got a call from a friend of mine who’s friends with Harry Gimler, the one who lives up there on the hill overlooking Whitetail.” Gimler was the man who had rushed to the scene when we were recovering the vehicle.
“Sure,” Smoke said.
“Is it true? Was that Tommy’s car you pulled out of the lake?” He leaned in, and rested his elbow on the desk. A dozen wrinkles fanned out from the corner of his milky brown eyes.
“We don’t know that for a fact just yet, but that’s the way it looks.”
Mr. Fryor lifted his hand and dropped his forehead into it. When he raised it again there were tears on his lower lids. He pulled a handkerchief out of his pocket and wiped his nose. “We thought they’d up and run off. That Wendy sure had a way of turning a boy’s head when she wanted to.” He thought for a moment then stared at Smoke. “Well I guess I don’t have to tell you that, Elton. She caused a problem for you. A pretty big one, as I recall.”
Smoke shifted in his chair, clearly uncomfortable the attention had switched to him and a past indiscretion. “That’s true enough.” He cleared his throat. “We were planning to pay you a visit yet today, let you know what was going on. My apologies you had to track us down instead, Mister Fryor.”
Fryor nodded. “You know, Tommy disappearing like that caused a rift between the missus and me that we couldn’t mend. I tried, but she didn’t. A couple years later, she moved out. Was living over in Emerald Lake until a week ago Friday—” He quit talking and his eyes teared up.
“Where she go?” Smoke said.
“Passed on. We buried her last week.”
“I’m sorry, Mister Fryor.”
“If she’d a held on a little longer at least she could have known what happened to her son. Back in those days, she’d go off by herself every now and again for a day or a weekend for what she called some meditating time. It really stung that she shut me out of her life, wouldn’t let me help her. I was hurting too. But Tommy was her baby. They were like two peas in a pod. You try not to favor one kid over the next, but she couldn’t seem to help herself. It was pretty obvious to the other two kids, so I did what I could to be fair, and loved each one as much as the next.”
What my mother told me is that she loved my brother John Carl and me the same, but liked us for different reasons. That made sense to me because that’s how I felt about my three living grandparents, and my grandma who’d died.
“We used up a lot of our savings trying to find Tommy. But one day Ellen—that’s my wife—said we’d spent enough on two separate private detectives and needed to save some in case we ever needed to help the other two.”
“How long did you work with the private detectives?” Smoke said.
“Six weeks. I knew we’d used up a lot of our savings. I was surprised she had made the call is all. I figured Tommy and Wendy would tire of each other one day and they’d come back, so I agreed and we called off the search. And I know you folks did what you could to find them. Now we know why it wasn’t meant to be.”
“People disappear way more often than you could ever imagine,” Smoke said.
I thought back to the case we’d had the previous November and the staggering statistics I’d read about missing people and unidentified remains. If I had a loved that disappeared, I would never give up hope until I was convinced there was none.
“Mister Fryor, we’d like to collect a DNA sample from you so the medical examiner can make a positive identification.
Mr. Fryor swiped at a new tear. “You never really get over a thing like this. This is probably going to sound strange, especially now, but I still think of Tommy being alive out there somewhere.”
Self-protection was natural when a tragedy occurred, I’d learned during my years with the department. It was difficult, sometimes impossible for some people to accept the worst.
Christine Husom is the author of the Winnebago County Mystery Series