Crime of the Month

Crime of the Month: A Missing Woman

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One United Nations estimate says from 113 million to 200 million women around the world are demographically “missing.” Every year, from 1.5 million to 3 million women and girls lose their lives as a result of gender-based violence or neglect.                                                                                                   –Ayaan Hirsi Ali, The New York Times

According to the National Crime Information Center’s (NCIC’s) Missing Person and Unidentified Person Files, 298,190 women were reported missing in 2019.  

               –Federal Bureau of Investigation    

Thirty-six years ago, a woman who was my friend went missing. Her name was Toni Swartz Esbenshade, and she was last seen leaving her part-time bartending job at a tavern in Lockhart, Texas around midnight on March 26, 1984. During the day, Toni worked as the office manager at Bufkin Farms, which was a sister company to Countywide Builders, the construction outfit I worked for as a receptionist. We met through our jobs and became fast friends. We had a lot in common. We were both in our early twenties, young mothers, and we both had troubled marriages. My daughter was two years old, and Toni had two daughters and a son. She loved her children and worked hard to provide for them. On occasion, I babysat for her while she worked part-time at night as a bartender for extra cash.

The small town where we lived, Lockhart, was a bedroom community of Austin. Things I loved about Lockhart were taco trucks, tamale vendors, gathering pecans in season, dancehalls, trail rides, tubing down the Guadalupe River, and the FHA loan that allowed me and my then-husband to buy our first house. I made good friends in Lockhart, including Darlene, who worked with Toni at Bufkin Farms. The two of them were locals who had known each other since first grade. All three of us often ate lunch together and met outside of work at one of our homes or at the city park with our children for playdates.

Things I didn’t like about Lockhart included too many scorpions, the good old boys’ network that dominated my social sphere, subsistence wages, religiosity, and small-town conservatism. In addition, the early 1980s were not economically kind to Texas. The savings and loan scandals that rocked the banking industry also bankrupted construction, and the oil and gas bust bankrupted offshore drilling and other oil field jobs. Texas, in fact, was the only major industrial state in the early 80s to experience increases in unemployment.

My friend Toni’s estranged husband, Roger Esbenshade, was a victim of oil field layoffs. The two of them were in the middle of divorce proceedings when Roger lost his job and became unable to pay mandated child support. He moved back into Toni’s house to help care for the children and save money on daycare, and she began bartending part-time at the tavern. She and Roger fought often, and when I visited their house, it was always a wreck. Roger was a man, and real men didn’t clean house back then. He left sodden diapers laying around, empty bottles and sippy cups, toys, dirty clothes, all the mess that three small children can generate. I didn’t know Roger very well, but I felt sorry for Toni’s situation.

On Tuesday morning, March 27, 1984, Toni didn’t show up for work at Bufkin Farms. Darlene was off that day due a doctor’s appointment. When Toni didn’t show up on Wednesday morning either, Darlene became concerned. While the owners of Bufkin Farms and Countywide Builders were annoyed, they dismissed the idea that something terrible could have happened. It was assumed that Toni was being irresponsible and would be reprimanded when she showed up.

After work that day, Darlene had planned a birthday party at the park for her three-year-old daughter, a party that I attended with my two-year-old in tow. Surprisingly, Roger also showed up at the park with his and Toni’s children; he was driving Toni’s car. When we asked Roger where Toni was, he said she didn’t come home on Monday night. When he woke on Tuesday morning, her keys were dangling from the front door lock, her purse was on the porch, and her car was in the driveway. Roger said he assumed she’d run off, probably with some man she met at the tavern.

The story he told us didn’t make sense and, in fact, was alarming. Toni would never abandon her children, and why would she leave her keys, purse, and car behind if she did? Darlene went home after the birthday party and announced to her husband that she was calling the police to report our friend Toni was missing. Her husband forbade it, but she insisted, and so he told her she’d have to talk to the police outside because he didn’t want them in the house. Darlene called the Lockhart Police and waited in the front yard. When an officer arrived, she told him Toni was missing. The officer interviewed her and agreed to file a missing person report.

Toni’s disappearance made the local news, and a short investigation ensued. One suspect was a traveling photographer who took annual grade school pictures. The photographer had given Toni a single red rose at the tavern, but he had an alibi and was quickly dismissed as a suspect. The police interviewed Roger Esbenshade, and he told them the same story he told me and Darlene, which the Lockhart Police accepted at face value. Toni’s parents, an older couple who had adopted her as an infant, were bereft in the way of quiet people who abhor public attention, or at least that’s the way I remember them.

Days passed, a week, a month, and Toni never turned up. Darlene and I were convinced that Roger was responsible for her disappearance, that when she came home late Monday night after bartending, her husband was waiting, and they fought, and that, on purpose or by accident, he killed Toni and disposed of her body, perhaps with the help of his extended family. Toni had a strong personality, but she was a slight woman, only five foot five, though she liked to wear platform sandals that made her appear taller. Darlene and I discussed our foul play theory, but we didn’t know how to afford our own investigation or persuade the police to take our suspicions seriously. I’ve often felt guilty I didn’t demand justice for my friend, until Darlene reminds me that we were young woman with our own lives and problems: small children, low-paying jobs, difficult husbands, and domestic demands. It was the Enjoli age, when women were expected to bring home the bacon, fry it up in a pan, and prop up patriarchy because it was fragile.

A couple of years after Toni’s disappearance, I left Lockhart with my family to move back to the Dallas metroplex. Darlene and I have remained friends, talking and sometimes visiting. Twice over the years, a woman’s remains have been found and tested to determine if they belonged to Toni. In both cases, the remains were not her. In 1990, Darlene called to tell me that Roger Esbenshade had died. He fell to his death from the upper scaffolding at a high-rise construction site. Darlene gave me shivers when she said that, to get revenge, Toni’s ghost had pushed him. Whatever, if anything else, Roger knew about Toni’s disappearance went to the grave when he died.

Earlier this year, in late April with Covid-19 spreading its tendrils across America, my friend Darlene received a call from an officer at the Lockhart Police Department, who requested that she come to the station to once again review Toni’s missing person case. Every five or six years, the police called her in for a review. In the midst of the pandemic, Darlene donned her mask and complied, though she later told me that this year was more emotionally difficult than ever. She was shown old photographs and asked to identify the subjects, pictures of Toni and Toni’s children that broke her heart. Darlene was asked the same old questions, and when the interview was finally over, the officer pushed some paper across the table and said, “Now, write the whole thing down in your own words. Here’s a pen. I’ll be back.” Left alone in the room, Darlene lowered her mask and cried. She used it to wipe her tears. If Toni were alive, she’d be sixty this year, and a great-grandmother twice over. Her classification remains: Endangered Missing. Nothing has happened yet to change that.

 

 

5 replies »

  1. Thank you for telling my Mom’s story and keeping her memory alive. This is the most detailed version I’ve ever heard due to being so young when it happened.

    Like

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