SHAWNEE, Okla. – Thirty years ago, Shawnee teenager Sandy Rea disappeared without a trace, placing her at the heart of a sensational, cold-case mystery complicated by drugs, sex parties and domestic abuse.
The problem for Shawnee police Sgt. Greg Gibson – the primary investigator in the case – is the lack of a body, crime scene and physical evidence. During the last three decades, police have conducted about 200 interviews in connection with Rea’s Sept. 19, 1984 disappearance from Windsor Bowl, a fact that has left the seasoned investigator shaking his head.
“You think…this is a girl last seen at the Shawnee bowling alley. She had to go somewhere with someone so (you think) you’re going to be able to find out,” Gibson said. “How can this happen in Shawnee, Oklahoma, in 1984. How does someone fall off the face of the Earth?”
Gibson, who took over the missing person’s case in 1991, said Rea’s disappearance yielded no physical evidence, leaving police with nothing but hearsay stories, rumors and innuendos. Theories abound, including one from a paid psychic, but there’s little evidence to support any of them, the investigator said.
Stories of sex-for-drugs parties created speculation among investigators that Rea may have been too involved with those who arranged the carnal gatherings at rural and lake settings around Shawnee. The most recent theory surrounding Rea’s disappearance focuses on her stepfather, Jim Wells, who died four years ago. Rea’s mother, Carol Wells, now believes her ex-husband raped Sandy, who became pregnant, and was involved in killing her to keep the teenage girl quiet.
A less dramatic explanation for Sandy’s disappearance is that she overdosed on drugs and those with her panicked. Not knowing how to handle the situation, the partiers took Rea to a remote location, buried her and then vowed never to speak of that night again, investigators speculated.
“I’d heard a lot of stories over the years, but I try to stay on the normal side of the investigation and not get carried away,” Carol Wells said. “I knew Sandy was in trouble, but I didn’t know how to take care of her. In fact, she didn’t want me to take care of her. I would never have thought I’d be sitting here 30 years later not knowing what happened.”
Rea’s family describes her as a free spirit, and though fiercely independent, she was a doting sister to her siblings. Her winning personality and beauty made the 17-year-old petite blonde a popular girl. She worked two jobs and managed to stay in school. She was voted president of the local VICA chapter. To those who didn’t know her well, she may have seemed stable; but those closest to her knew there was trouble in her life. Sandy was hanging around with a rough crowd who liked to use drugs and party. She had just ended an abusive relationship and was staying with a friend when she disappeared.
Wells claims her daughter – a slave to the 1980s drug culture and a victim of promiscuous behavior – willingly attended so-called “Suit Parties” organized by affluent Pottawatomie County businessmen and attorneys who reportedly preyed on young, vulnerable teenagers like Rea. Trading sex for drugs, the teens would gather in various homes and hotels around Shawnee, drink alcohol, take the drugs and then engage in sexual relations with the adult men. Some teens who attended the parties purported that the girls were simply raped after becoming incapacitated.
“There was five of them (adult men), my daughter told me, suits. They were called suit parties. She had been involved in a couple of those. There wasn’t anything I can change. She was almost 18 and all I could do was tell her how dangerous it was,” Wells said.
Unsure if Sandy Rea was a homicide victim, a missing teen or a runaway, Shawnee police employed, at that time, routine tactics for a missing person’s case by interviewing family, friends and known associates. That was about all police could do 30 years ago, said Shawnee Police Chief Russell Frantz.
“If this same situation occurred today, we would have the Amber Alert, we could ping her cell phone and we would be looking at every possible security camera anywhere near the place where she went missing,” he said.
Yet, as the years go by, memories have faded. Potential witnesses and suspects have died, leaving little hope that Rea will ever be found.
“The chances grow dimmer the longer this case is unsolved,” Frantz said.
Despite the odds and the voluminous amount of hearsay information, Gibson hopes someone will come forward with information to help investigators solve the case, which could mean the grisly discovery of Sandy Rea’s remains buried somewhere in Pottawatomie County or beyond.
“I hope at some point that someone who can’t live with themselves and the knowledge they have about this case will come forward,” Gibson said, acknowledging that multiple suspects were likely involved in Rea’s disappearance. “At this point and until this case is solved, no person has been cleared or exonerated.”
At the same time, Carol Wells is both optimistic and realistic about finding her daughter.
“I’m hoping to find just a bone, anything, just one piece of evidence. I know the chances of finding her are 1 percent, but I’m not going to give up,” she said. “She’s my kid and it’s my obligation to bring her home.”
Not giving up means revisiting each theory, for the weary mother, and for investigators. Among the dozens of convoluted tales, three theories have persisted.
Friends and family have said that Rea had just ended an abusive relationship with an ex-boyfriend, Danny McLeod, who was later interviewed by police following her disappearance.
“Did I see bruises? Yes. Sandy would come home with bruises around her neck. Like he’d choked her. I asked her why don’t you leave him, and she told me that’s where she gets her drugs,” said Carol Wells.
Wells said two days before Sandy disappeared, Sandy fought off Danny, breaking one of his knee caps in a struggle. She moved out of the boyfriend’s residence and was staying with a friend.
On September 19, 1984, between 4:30 p.m. and 6:00 p.m. she went to the Windsor Bowling Alley on Harrison Street where she talked with her cousin, an employee working that night. According to his official voluntary statement, he said she was going to a party by the lake later and needed a ride. She purchased a pack of cigarettes, made some phone calls and reportedly said, “Danny McLeod is coming to pick me up whether he knows it or not.” He did not see with whom she left.
Further suspicions mounted when police learned that Danny McLeod’s father, Jim McLeod, borrowed Wells’ car that night at about 10:30. The next day Wells said she found “a lot of mud in the trunk,” leaving her to wonder if the mud was evidence that her daughter had been killed and buried. Just days later, Jim McLeod filled in the basement of McLeod Pawn Shop. In an interview with Red Dirt Report, McLeod said his son had nothing to do with Sandy’s disappearance and the rumors about his family’s involvement are easily explained.
“I borrowed Carol’s car because there was something wrong with mine. I had no reason to go near the trunk. That was the same time we were digging out the basement. The floor had caved in at the back and I lost 20 to 30 TV sets. The pipes broke, the gas lines broke and you could smell the gas. It took 880 yards of sand to fill it in. That’s the same time she came up missing,” McLeod recalled.
McLeod said he went to see customer Joquita Marcus, who is now deceased, and returned to his pawn shop before he returned Wells’ car around 2 a.m. McLeod said Wells invited him to eat breakfast at a local diner. But when Wells later spoke to Marcus, she claimed McLeod asked her to provide an alibi for him as having been at her residence.
Willing to cooperate, McLeod said he always offered police the opportunity to search the pawn shop as long as they put anything disturbed back in place. Last year a GPR (ground penetrating radar) search yielded no evidence that a body is beneath the pawn shop. Although Red Dirt Report was unable to contact Danny McLeod, his father Jim said he doesn’t believe his son could have been involved in Rea’s demise. He also denied rumors that his son sold drugs to Rea or other teenage girls. Danny McLeod now lives in Ohio.
Carol Wells now believes that her ex-husband and Rea’s stepfather, Jim Wells, may have had a motive to kill her daughter. After a friend of the family came forward about a sexually inappropriate conversation Jim allegedly had with Sandy, Wells became suspicious. She learned that Rea told her siblings she had caught Jim peeping in on her while she was in the bathroom taking a shower. Carol believes the mud in her car could have come from her ex-husband who worked in the oilfield and would have had access to remote areas to bury a body.
Wells had long heard the rumor that her daughter may have been pregnant at the time she vanished.
“Someone told me Sandy was going to go tell on him because she was pregnant,” said Carol. “That means he would have went to prison and that’s worth killing for. Do I think it could have happened? Yes. I do.”
Adding to her suspicions, Jim Wells was friends with a man named Ernie Honeycutt. She claims that Honeycutt used to sell marijuana out of an old, square shaped van. Honeycutt often went on fishing trips with the Wells and had even sold marijuana to her daughter. Carol believes if Jim did kill her, he couldn’t have acted alone and believes Honeycutt could have helped him. A psychic, now deceased, hired by Carol Wells seemed to add to the theory.
“It takes me back to what she (psychic) said about an old man and he drove a very old type van,” Wells said.
Wells believes if Ernie Honeycutt was involved, Sandy’s body may have been buried in an old country cemetery, in the very plot where Honeycutt was later buried himself. She still searches for that cemetery to this day.
Investigators have speculated whether Rea may have accidentally overdosed while at a party. Those who were present may have panicked and simply buried her. There are circumstances which make this theory plausible.
A year before Sandy’s disappearance, a friend with whom she partied, 14-year-old Cynthia Terry, died after a party at the American Inn Hotel on April 5, 1983. According to the autopsy, she was pregnant and four nerve suppressing drugs were found in her system. Her death certificate lists her fate as an overdose homicide with assault injuries.
“My daughter talked to her [Terry] that night and they wanted her [Sandy] to go to the party and she wouldn’t go. She told Cindy not to go to the party too,” said Wells.
Was Sandy at a party the night she disappeared and accidentally overdosed, or did she suffer the same fate as her friend? Did she end up at a suit party gone wrong, and a cover-up ensued to protect those involved?
Allegations have persisted that drug and human trafficking corruption was also connected to the Shawnee police department. Gibson, the third police investigator to handle the Rea case, objected to the rumors the department covered up key facts and ignored leads that implicated high-profile businessmen and attorneys.
“I strongly take offense to that,” Gibson said. “I’m not that kind of person. I would not cover up for anybody. It bogs down the case when you have to go back and try to justify everything you do.”
While Wells did not seem to take issue with Gibson, she accused Charlie Phillips, then head of the Criminal Investigations Division, of dropping the ball several times, including his failure to highlight the investigation on Oklahoma City television news stations. She has also been confused as to why her daughter was listed as a runaway when Rea left behind her makeup, payroll check, and brand new clothes. She contends that Phillips – now retired – mishandled the case when he refused to search her car, which McLeod borrowed the night of Rea’s disappearance. Carol Wells claims she found mud in the trunk. Wells also believes that McLeod and Phillips were friends, leaving the grieving mother to believe a potential suspect was ignored by police.
Charlie Phillips declined an interview with Red Dirt Report.
“It simply wasn’t handled,” said Wells. “There was too many ways it could go and Charlie Phillips did not want any smudge on him. I don’t know of anything he did to prove things.”
At one point Wells said she pleaded with Phillips in his office and he became emotional.
“He was sitting at his desk and he was crying. He said, ‘Carol there are things about this case I will never be able to tell you.’ I said, ‘Well Charlie. I just want to bring her home.’ I don’t think he was able to do anything.”
Wells said she begged Phillips to continue his search for Rea. “I told him, ‘don’t tell the whole world what you’re doing. Just do it.’”
Adding to the confusion, Gibson admitted that he started his investigation in 1991 with very little information in the file. The only documents in the case file was the original missing person’s report, and “a few” handwritten notes by detective Voneita Stogner. Stogner took the initial report in September 1984, but told Red Dirt Report that this was not her case and identified Phillips as the lead investigator. During an interview earlier this week Gibson said there was no indication that Phillips worked the case.
The file on the Sandy Rea case is about four inches thick, suggesting the department has been hard at work in more recent times. Police Chief Frantz said the department called on an archeology research team from the University of Oklahoma to conduct at least two digs in hopes of finding Rea’s remains.
In addition, agents with the Oklahoma State Bureau of Investigation have aided Shawnee police with the Rea probe. At one point, Shawnee police submitted handwriting samples to the FBI for expert analysis.
“We’ve looked in old oil wells and water wells,” he said. “I’ve spent 12 hours in the rain at one dig. We’ve gone to extreme lengths in the five years I’ve been here. If there’s been a tip that’s slightly credible, we’ll go check it out. We’ve dispelled a lot of stories and rumors. But this is one of those cases when nothing substantial takes you in one direction and we’re back at square one.”
As a result, the mysterious case has won the interest of a high profile private investigation firm, but it won’t come without sacrifice. The firm’s fee is $25,000. Rea’s family and friends have set up a funding site on crowdrise.com titled, “Find Sandy Fund,” and hopes to raise as much money as possible.
“I’ll let just about anyone look at it (case file),” Gibson said. “I’m for anything that finds Sandy. There’s nothing in this for me. This (investigation) is for Carol.”
In the meantime, the endless speculation continues and, for Rea’s mother, the unrelenting cruelty of the unknown.
Editor’s Note: This story originally posted to Red Dirt Report and is republished here with permission.