009 - The Disappearance of the Fort Worth Three
Seminary South Shopping Center opened in South Fort Worth in March of 1962. The mall itself was built over Katy Lake, which was drained and a complex drainage system was put into place to prevent flooding. It was the first major shopping mall in the area, and boasted many popular stores of the time, including a large Sears. The mall itself was opened by Homart Development Company, which was in fact the mall development portion of Sears itself. Within several years, other major retailers came into the mall, developing and expanding the site. By 1974, the mall expanded beyond clothing and retail stores, growing to also contain a movie theater and a bowling alley. Today Seminary South is known as the Fort Worth Town Center.
Mary Trlica was seventeen years old in 1974 and tended to go by her middle name, Rachel, which is how I will refer to her from here on out. Despite her age, Rachel was married to Thomas Trlica, a man who had, interestingly enough, been involved in a short relationship with Rachel’s sister Debra Arnold, Arnold being Rachel’s maiden name. Thomas was a widower, and had a two year old son who Rachel is reported to have cared very much about, and treated him as her own. Debra has since stated that her relationship with Thomas was short lived, and never serious. According to Debra, she and Rachel grew up in a tough environment with a strict and violent father whom both were frightened of.
By December of 1974, Rachel was living with her husband Thomas, and Debra moved out of the family home, going to stay with the married couple. According to Debra, this was not awkward, despite her history with Thomas, and the three got along well. Rachel has a brother, named Rusty, who was still living in the Arnold family home.
Rachel was a lovely woman, standing 5’8” and weighing around 108 pounds. She had long brownish blond hair and eyes which would shift from blue to green. On the morning of December 23rd, Rachel decided to take a trip to the Seminary South Shopping Center to do some last minute Christmas shopping. She asked her mother to go along, but she elected to stay home. Reportedly, Rachel’s father was sick at the time and her mother didn’t want to leave him alone. With her mother unable to attend, Rachel reached out to her close friend, 14 year old Lisa Renee Wilson, who decided to tag along. Like her friend, Rachel, Lisa also chose to go by her middle name, Renee, which is how I will refer to her from this point on.
Renee was visiting her Grandmother’s house that morning and didn’t appear to have any intentions of going shopping. Across the street from Renee’s grandmother’s home was the Moseley home. When Renee’s mother was at work, she would stay with her grandmother, and became close with the Moseley kids across the street. Among the kids were Julie Ann, a nine year old, and her older brother, Terry. Terry was 15 in 1974, and knew that Renee had a crush on him. The two began dating and on the morning of December 23rd, Terry presented Renee with a promise ring, which she enthusiastically accepted. According to Terry, he placed the ring on Renee’s finger and promised his devotion.
At some point during the morning, Renee received a call from Rachel. Rachel told Renee that she was planning on going to Seminary South to get some Christmas gifts and asked if she wanted to come along. Rachel was three years older then Renee, but they had been friends for a while. At first Renee wasn’t interested. She asked Terry if he wanted to go, and he told her that he couldn’t as he’d made plans to go visit a sick friend that morning. Since Terry would be busy, Renee told Rachel that she would come along, but she had to be back by 4pm. She was going to a Christmas party with Terry that evening and wanted plenty of time to ensure that she looked her best. Renee stood5’2” tall and weighed around 110 pounds. She had brown hair with auburn red highlights and brown eyes. That morning she was reportedly wearing red and white sneakers and a yellow t-shirt with the words “Sweet Honesty” printed on it, bluish purple hip hugger pants and a promise ring with a small stone. Her clothing has been somewhat debated, as it’s also been suggested she was wearing a white pullover sweater with the words “Sweet Honesty” printed in yellow, and that she may have worn oxford shoes and not red and white.
Although Terry had plans, and couldn’t accompany Renee and Rachel to the mall that morning, his nine year old sister Julie Ann was excited by the prospect and asked if she could come along. Julie was bored, and begged Renee to take her along, and begged her family to let her. Julie’s family knew Renee well, but were unfamiliar with Rachel and were reticent to allow her to tag along with a stranger. However, Renee was best friends with Rachel, and told the family she’d keep an eye on Julie. Hesitantly, her moth agreed and allowed Julie to go shopping with the older girls. Julie was 4’3” tall and weighed approximately 85 pounds. She had light brown hair and blue eyes.
Rachel arrived in her Oldsmobile 95. Despite it’s name, the Oldsmobile 95 was the model name of the flagship Oldmobile which was manufactured between 1940 and 1996. Sometime before 12pm, the three girls packed into the car and headed on their way. Before arriving at Seminary South, they made a quick stop at the local Army / Navy store where Rachel had some gifts on Layaway. They then continued on, arriving at Seminary South, parking on the upper level near Sears.
Multiple witnesses report seeing the three girls in the mall that day with several specifically remembering the “Sweet Honesty” saying on Renee’s shirt. The timeline of what occurred that day in the mall is subject to debate, and cannot be known for certain. What is known is that at some point, the girls returned to the car because several Christmas gifts purchased at the mall were found locked inside. When 4pm came and went, all three girl’s families began to grow concerned, but at the same time, didn’t think it was completely unusual for them to run a little late. As the evening grew longer, it was decided that they needed to head over to Seminary South to check and see if the girls were still there, or perhaps if they’d experienced car trouble along the way.
There were no signs of the girls along the way, and upon arriving at the mall, the car was quickly located at approximately 6pm. The car was locked, and still parked on the upper lot near Sears. They noticed the gifts locked inside the vehicle and assumed the girls had come to the car to lighten their load, and then gone back in to finish shopping. After searching the mall and grounds extensively, the three girls were nowhere to be found. As panic began to set in, the police were contacted and began to investigate. There is some debate between the families and the police, though.
Police maintain that the initial report was taken seriously, and they approached the situation with foul play and abduction in mind. In the years since, members of the families have stated publicly that police did not take it seriously at all. Rusty Arnold, Rachel’s younger brother, who was eleven at the time, has said that the Police treated the whole incident as though the three women had chosen to runaway. Rusty has stated “They didn’t even fingerprint the car when it was first found. They treated them as runaways for the first year. My sister did not run away. Me and my mother went through every store.” According to reports of the time, upon inspection of the car, three $50 dollar savings bonds which had been in the glove box were missing. Contrarily, in a 2012 interview, Rusty would state that the savings bonds were in fact found in the vehicle. Police released the car to Rachel’s husband just the next day, which makes it highly unlikely the vehicle was thoroughly processed for forensic evidence, though at the time, forensics was much less efficient then it is now. Also, it has been reported that Police refused to come until the mall closed, at around 11pm. Whether not this was based on an assumption that the girls were still shopping is unknown.
According to Police, they went through the mall, interviewing possible witnesses. Reportedly, one store clerk informed them that a female shopper had told him that she had seen the girls earlier, and that she had seen a man hustling the girls into a pickup truck in the parking lot. The police were never able to locate this woman and could not verify the clerk’s story. Several years later, in 1981, a male witness came forward and claims to have seen the girls being shoved into a van by an unknown man. According to the witness, he approached the man and asked what was going on. He claims the man told him that it was a family matter, and to mind his own business. This story has never been fully verified either. Another woman who was in the mall that day told police a slightly different story. According to this witness, she had seen the girls riding in a mall security car.
There were many witness accounts, but none could agree on the details. Nothing certain could be gained from these accounts, but Police began to wonder if it was possible that the girls had gotten into a vehicle with someone that one, or all of them knew and something had gone wrong along the way. Whether they had been abducted, or some strange accident occurred, is unknown to this day.
It’s been reported that several family members arrived at the mall and staked out the car, wielding a shotgun, watching from a distance to see if anyone showed up acting suspicious, and with the hope that the girls would come walking up and back into their lives. Unfortunately, the three girls did not return, and seem to have mysteriously vanished without an explanation.
The case took a strange twist the next day. A letter arrived on Christmas Eve, 1974. The letter was addressed to “Thomas A. Trlica,” Rachel’s husband. On the top left corner of the envelope, Rachel’s name was written. This is pointed out as strange because if indeed the letter was written by Rachel, it’s odd that she was so formal in addressing her own husband and everyone who knew the couple says that she always referred to him as “Tommy,” not “Thomas.” The letters oddities don’t stop there.
The letter was postmarked, but did not list a city. There was a postal service number stamped on the envelope, reportedly 76083. However, the three is said to appear backwards, making some wonder if it is actually an incomplete 8, a result of the stamp not being fully depressed on the envelope. If this is the case then the zip code should read 76088 which would denote the city of Weatherford, Texas which is approximately 30 miles west of Fort Worth. It should be noted that “76083” is a zip code used in France, and it’s simply not possible that a letter mailed from France would arrive in Fort Worth Texas within the span of 24 hours. There is also some debate that the zip code could have denoted Eliasville, Texas as the point of origin. Eliasville is approximately 100 miles west of Fort Worth. Following further investigation, the United States Postal Service declared that the letter had in fact been mailed from Forth Worth.
In totality the letter read: “I know I’m going to catch it, but we just had to get away. We’re going to Houston. See you in about a week. The car is in Sear’s upper lot. Love Rachel.” The letter itself was written on a large sheet of paper in what has been described as a childish script. The “L” at the end of Rachel’s name appears to have originally been scrawled as an “e” and then written over, making it taller and more like an “L.” The letter has been hotly debated, but almost no one believes that Rachel wrote the letter. Rachel’s family says it doesn’t resemble her handwriting, and that it looked as though it had been written by a small child, or an illiterate or uneducated person. Extensive testing has been conducted on the letter, and there was reportedly DNA located years later which did not match Rachel’s. In the years since, the DNA has never matched anyone tested, nor in the system currently. In addition to this inconsistency, hand written analysis has suggested the letter was written by a right handed person, and Rachel was left handed.
According to Rachel’s husband, Tommy, he retrieved the letter that morning. It was in the mailbox, with no other mail. The envelope was sealed shut, and the ten cent stamp had been cancelled that day, December 24th, 1974. Rachel’s younger brother Rusty, when asked years later stated “It is my opinion Rachel did not write that letter.”
Years later, when Rachel’s husband Tommy was asked, he stated “I never thought it came from Rachel.” Debra Arnold, Rachel’s sister and Tommy’s ex girlfriend, who was living with the couple at the time of the disappearance has said that Rachel invited her along on the trip that day, but that she turned it down because she was tired and planned on staying in bed longer and she was present the next morning when Tommy found the letter in the mailbox. Debra’s knowledge of the case and activity around this time will become more important later.
Over the next several years, investigators continue to hit the road block of little to no evidence in the case. There are witness reports, none of which can be corroborated, and all of which conflict with each other. Police continue following the theory that the girls may have gotten into a vehicle with someone they knew, or someone they felt comfortable going with, and foul play took place afterward. Police have stated “We can say that they were at one point seen with one individual, but we believe there was more than one involved.”
By the spring of 1975, the families of the missing girls came together and hired a private investigator. Swaim was a headstrong investigator who believed the Police weren’t doing enough with the case. Swaim reportedly built up a large file on the case, with reports from people who claimed to have the truth. Swaim called press conferences, and reportedly force Police to allow him to examine their files on the case. The police had previously searched a swampy area near Port Lavaca, Texas, some three hundred miles south of Fort Worth, and 127 miles east of Houston. The city sits on the west side of Lavaca Bay, which is an arm of Matagorda Bay, an estuary in the Gulf of Mexico. Swaim claimed the girls remains could be found in this area, and 100 volunteers showed up for a search, but nothing was located.
Swaim would also claim that a man who refused to identify himself had called, wanting to collect reward money in exchange for information about the disappearance. However, nothing came of this claim either and in 1979, Swaim died of a drug overdose, which police ruled a suicide. As stipulated in legal documents left behind by Swaim, all of his files, on all of his cases, including the Fort Worth Three, were destroyed following his death. Whether or not there was information of value which was lost in the destruction cannot be known for sure.
Throughout the rest of the seventies, several sets of human remains were found, and each time it was believed that the Fort Worth Three had finally been located, but testing always proved otherwise. A lot of supposed witnesses called in tips, claiming to have seen the girls around Texas, and the world, in the days, weeks and years after their disappearance, but none of these tips were ever able to be verified. Several psychics even called Police suggesting locations of the body, but they never panned out.
So what happened to Rachel Trlica, Renee Wilson and Julie Moseley? That is the burning question, and unfortunately, what possible answers do exist, they are thin, suspect or outright ludicrous. Police continued to investigate, and over time, the case grew more and more cold. Then suddenly, 25 years after the disappearance, in January of 2001, Fort Worth Police officially reopened the investigation. Detective Tom Boetcher was assigned to take charge of the case. At a Press conference, Boetcher gave an update on the case. According to the detective, there were nearly twenty new witnesses, many of whom say the three girls at the mall that fateful evening. According to Boetcher: “That combined with DNA evidence and the way DNA is collected and processed since this case was originally investigated makes for a better outcome.”
According to Boetcher, the Police were on the same page with their theory of what happened. They believed it involved someone they knew, or someone they felt safe with. Boetcher would go on to say that after exiting the mall, the girls ran into “foul play and met up with some unfortunate circumstances.” By this time, in 2001, Boetcher believed the girls were most likely deceased and that they had sent over 150 letters to corners offices in the five surrounding states regarding unidentified female remains found over the years, but not had matched.
In regard to suspects, Boetcher was a little more specific. Boetcher said “This case has so many possible suspects. It’s still an open an active case.” Later, he would say that the police believe they have narrowed the suspect pool down to under 5. The years which have passed complicate the case further, with police saying that some witnesses have passed away, others memories have grown foggy. Twenty five years is a long time, people forget, or details change in their mind and its difficult to determine if they are accurate or not. When asked about the renewed investigation, Rusty Arnold responded “I feel like they have done in the last three months more than any officer or detectives had done in the whole 26 year investigation.”
Perhaps it was the renewed interest from Police, or simply a jogging of memory, but in April of 2001, a new witness came forward. According to this witness, he saw all three girls that night at Seminary South. He said that at 11:30pm, some seven and a half hours after the girls were supposed to have been home, he witnessed all three in a truck with a young male security guard who worked for Seminary South. According to the witness, the three girls appeared relaxed and seemed to be in the vehicle willingly. So why did he wait so long to tell this story? According to him, he didn’t. The witness claims he informed Fort Worth Police about this a few days after the disappearance, but that investigators never followed through on it.
The witness was Bill Hutchins, and he was a security guard working for Sears at Seminary South during the disappearance. Bill had previously been a Fort Worth Police officer in the 1960’s. According to Hutchins, while doing a check of the parking lot that evening, he worked shifts overnight looking after the property, he had an incident with another young security guard, driving through the parking lot in a pickup truck. According to Hutchins “I saw three girls sitting in the front seat with him. A young girl next to him, a little older next to her and then the older and largest girl against the passenger door.” He approached the vehicle, and had a verbal dispute with the man, although the details of it are not explained. Everything seemed to be sorted out, however, and Hutchins says at that point “I apologized for my language, they laughed, you know, everybody was happy. We just exchanged a few comments, then he rolled up his window and drove off.”
According to Hutchins, when he saw the news reports a few days later about the missing girls, he contacted the police. He tried to get in touch with the lead detective on the case, stating “I talked to his secretary, gave her my name, what I had seen, everything like that and let it go at that and never heard back from them.” Hutchins goes on to say that he didn’t think it was odd to not hear back from them at the time, as newspaper reports got smaller and less frequent, he assumed the Police had either figured it out, or had different leads they were pursuing. Hutchins goes on to say that he never had a conversation with Police about the incident until they finally contacted him until 2001.
Police managed to locate this security guard, and question him about the case all these years later. According to Police, the man denied ever having seen the girl, let alone having any of them in his truck. The Police were adamament that they considerered this a viable lead, but were working on five suspects at the time, not just one. Hutchins story does corroborate the witness report from 1974, the unidentified woman who told a clerk she had seen the girls being hustled into a truck. Also, if the man was a security guard, it would fit the police theory of the girls being with someone they knew, or felt safe with.
As the years wore on, theories would rise and fall, suspects would come and go, but nothing solid could be linked to the three missing girls. A thorough examination of the case requires looking at all aspects, and so we will begin with the theories considered most likely, or at least, most realistic.
The families have stayed fairly united over the years on almost all aspects of the case. The one dividing factor has been Rachel’s sister, Debra.
According to Rachel’s brother, Rusty, in the beginning, he and his sister Debra were close, and worked together to try and figure out what happened to the girls. Rachel’s mother kept a scrapbook of all the newspaper reports regarding the disappearance, and Rusty and Debra would look through them, reading them time and again, hoping to find something new, something that might provide an answer.
As the years wore on, Rusty began to become suspicious of his sister, and he wasn’t the only one. Much has been speculated about Debra’s possible involvement in, or knowledge of, what happened to the three girls. In 1999, Rusty came into contact with Dan James, a private investigator who had been working on the case on his own time since around 1975. According to James, there are several reported sightings in the weeks after their disappearance which should be given more credence. These witness reports place the girls in a Wal-Mart, at a gas station, and in a country store. Notably, only the Rachel and Renee are reported in these sightings, with no mention of Julie Ann.
According to James, Rachel has been spotted much more recently, even up to 1998, in the Forth Worth area. James makes the claim that several credible witnesses saw Rachel in the area, and further investigation suggests that these witnesses are considered credible because they are people who knew Rachel at the time of her disappearance and recognized her. According to James “Someone close to one of the girls had something to do with her disappearance.” Enter Debra Arnold Hopper.
Debra was nineteen years old when her sister Rachel disappeared. She was living with Rachel, and her ex-boyfriend Tommy, Rachel’s husband. Although Debra admits that she and Tommy were involved in a relationship, and were even engaged at one point in time, she suggests the relationship was never very serious and that even the engagement was a half-cocked thing with little foundation. Debra has led a troubled life, with failed marriages and stints in rehab. When asked about it, Debra stated “It’s hard enough to deal with it that my sister is not here anymore. I had to go through lots and lots of counseling because of all the things that happened in my life.”
In an interview regarding her brother, Debra stated “I know he blames me, I know he thinks I had something to do with it. Rusty thinks this letter that Tommy got the next day – he thinks I wrote it. I didn’t write this letter. I don’t know who did” Other members of the family, however, blame private investigator Dan James for warping Rusty’s mind, and turning him against his own sister.
In the previous interview, when asked what she thought may have happened to her sister, Debra said “I don’t know what happened to my sister. Maybe white slavery. That’s the only thing that makes sense to me. I have nothing to hide.” In response to this interview, a letter was publicly released and stated as follows: “January 11th, 2000. Dear Debra. We read your statement in the Fort Worth Star Telegram on January 9, 2000. You indicated that you had nothing to hide. If your statement is true, we beg and plead with you to fully cooperate with the Fort Worth Police Department and the FBI. Please complete the polygraph testing and answer all questions. Debra, please keep in mind you also have a sister missing.” The letter is signed by her brother, Rusty Arnold, as well as Rayanne Moseley, Julie Ann’s mother, and Judy and Richard Wilson, Renee’s parents.
It’s unknown what evidence is around that causes Rusty to believe his sister Debra played a role in the disappearance of the three girls. Rusty, and Private Investigator Dan James, will not release the evidence in their possession. Even when asked about possible suspects, they are tight lipped and choose not to name names. It’s been nearly forty years, and yet for some reason, these details remain held close. As much research could be done into Debra as possible, but there isn’t a lot to find. However, in a radio interview, Rusty was asked about Debra’s possible involvement and stated that she had taken a polygraph and the results suggested she had knowledge of what happened that day.
This has to be taken with a grain of salt, for multiple reasons. One reason, which I’ve discussed extensively in other podcasts, is the fallability of polygraphs in the first place. Another is that there is no official police statement or report that Debra has ever taken a polygraph at all, let alone been shown to have been deceptive in it. One would have to believe that had Debra taken a polygraph, and failed, she would be looked at much more closely by Police, and that just doesn’t seem to be the case. Or if it is, the Police are also being very tight lipped about what they believe happened. It’s a sad state of affairs. The loss of a family member in such an unresolved way can be brutally devastating, and it’s obviously had major effects on both Rusty and Debra. What it is that drives Rusty to believe his sister was involved in Rachel’s disappearance is unknown, but because he believes it, we have to consider his direct statements about her to be somewhat biased, even if he doesn’t intend for them to be. As of this recording, I can find no evidence to support his statements about a polygraph, nor any statement from police in which Debra is talked about as a suspect.
One question which has been asked multiple times in relation to this theory is: If Debra were involved, what was her motive? Most theorize that it would have to do with Rachel’s marriage to Debra’s ex, Tommy. It’s thought that perhaps Debra was jealous and angry about the turn of events, and decided to do something to put an end to it. Crimes related to love triangles aren’t uncommon, but this one is flawed for several reasons. If Debra were involved, why would whatever happened be done when the other two girls were with her? In addition to that, it’s been reported that shortly after the disappearance, Tommy offered a $2,000 reward for information relating to Rachel. However, after a year, he picked up stakes and moved away, being out of contact with the families for over twenty years. Tommy is currently on his third marriage and still lives in the state of Texas.
Some have viewed Tommy’s behavior as suspicious, but it’s entirely possible that the event was traumatic for him and he needed to get away from it. If Debra’s goal was to bring the marriage to an end due to jealousy, she would have succeeded, but she’d also have lost Tommy in the process forever. Some have theorized that perhaps Tommy and Debra were in on it, but again, a total lack of any evidence outside of sheer speculation. Remember, there is a letter with DNA on it. Fort Worth Police must have tested this DNA against both Tommy and Debra in the years since the girls vanished. They have publicly stated they have no matches. Not to mention, if Debra has written the letter, wouldn’t hand writing analysis have suggested this connection? I did some investigation into Tommy Trlica. He appears to currently be married, with several children. By all accounts, he’s led a fairly straight laced life since the disappearance, and does not have a history which would suggest that he were a cold blooded killer, or kidnapper with a deep, dark secret.
The theory that Debra played a role in her sister’s disappearance is only one of many, and they get deeper, and darker yet.
The odd quote from Debra about “white slavery” is fairly close to another theory about Rachel Trlica, Renee Wilson and Julie Ann Moseley. There is a theory, which is purported by several individuals involved in, or adjacent to the case, that the three girls were kidnapped and forced into sex slavery and to become prostitutes. This isn’t that far out there, as sex trafficking is a very serious, large crime business. Also, due to its proximity to Mexico, Texas is a big state for these kinds of crimes. In fact, statistically speaking, nearly 1/3 of sex trafficking tips in the United States, come from Texas. This theory bares a strange connection to an unsolved case involving murder. The murder itself, that part is solved. What remains unknown is the true identitiy of the woman, who has come to be known as El Dorado Jane Doe. In 1991, Jane Doe was murdered in room 121 of the Whitehall Motel in El Dorado Arkansas. At the time of her death, the woman was thought to be between the ages of 18 and 30. She went by several names including Mercedes, Kelly Lee Karr, Shannon Wiley, Cheryl Kaufman and Cheryl Ann Wick which was the name on the ID card found on her.
Fairly quickly after her murder, Police arrested and charged her former boyfriend and pimp James McAlphin with her murder. McAlphin was convicted for murdering her, but in interviews and during his time in prison he has made several strange statements in regard to not only Jane Doe, but to the three missing girls from Fort Worth. According to McAlphin, in an interview with the Huffington Post, he stated “The identity is not a mystery to me, but if you solve this cold case, you’ll find that you are also solving a couple more cold cases.” McAlphin served fifteen years for the murder, and was released, but imprisoned again for domestic abuse. It was during this imprisonment that he started talking, and claiming to reveal information in exchange for $4,000.
McAlphin claimed, among many other things, that Jane Doe grew up friends with the three girls who disappeared from Seminary South back in 1974. According to McAlphin, he had in fact seen the girls. McAlphin states “These girls were like sisters to Mercedes. We used to visit them. They grew up in captivity in the Dallas/Fort Worth area, sometimes in the same town where their parents were. By the time they were adults, they were willing members of the stable. The younger girl died giving birth.” Contrarily, Detective Cathy Philips, a 23 year veteran of the El Dorado Police Department gives a much different opinion, saying “I’ve known him since I’ve worked here and he just doesn’t have the truth in him.” Also, Jane Doe had a history of telling completely different stories of her past and identity, which would make anything McAlphin claimed to be true hard to swallow since, even if he was telling the truth, that wouldn’t mean that Jane Doe had been.
So is it possible that the three girls were kidnapped and sold into sex slavery or forced into prostitution? Sadly, yes. Although the words of a convicted murderer and former pimp aren’t exactly something to base a solid foundation on, there are others who have suggested this very theory. It’s been theorized that the three girls were taken and either drugged, beaten, or both, and forced to act as prostitutes. In more than one place, it is said, that the girls were kept in the same area from which they vanished. The idea that the youngest girl, Julie Ann who was only 9 at the time she vanished, later passed away due to complications from child birth is also a theory which appears frequently, although it’s hard to know if this was reported before or after the interview with James McAlphin.
The families have received multiple crank calls over the years, but one stuck out to Julie’s mother Rayanne. According to Rayanne, in February of 1975, less than three months since the disappearance, she received a strange phone call. According to Rayanne, the voice on the other end said “mama” twice, and then began to say something else, but the call was cut off. Although this can’t be known for sure, and could just as easily be another prank call, many view this as proof that at least Julie was still alive months after the disappearance. If this is the case, it’s possible the other girls were alive as well, and possibly in the area as has been suggested.
Rachel’s brother, Rusty, along with private investigator Dan James, have given out fragments of their theory, which also suggests that at least Rachel is still alive, and in the Fort Worth area. James claims that during his work on the case, he has received anonymous death threats telling him to stay away from the case. He has offered a $25,000 reward from his own bank account to information leading to the arrest and conviction of the person or persons responsible for the disappearance. According to James, Rachel visits the Fort Worth area during the holidays and that someone is “shrouding and manufacturing evidence.” James has stated multiple times that he believes only Rachel still survives, saying “I believe that Renee Wilson is not alive. I believe that something dreadfully wrong, and probably a fatality occurred involving Julie Ann Moseley.” In regard to the person or persons that is shrouding evidence, James stated: “I believe that person facilitates and maintains an effort to keep Rachel away from Fort Worth.”
This isn’t much to go on, and no solid evidence has been provided to support any of it. There have not been legitimate and independently verified sightings of the three girls since the day they vanished in 1974. The idea that they were kept in the area all of these years, and forced into prostitution can’t be ruled out, but you’d have to imagine that someone would have seen one of them sometime in the past 40 plus years. Obviously, the girls did not choose to leave as the police originally suggested, and were abducted. Or did they?
One specific theory which has been floating around for a long time goes as follows: Rachel and Renee take Julie Ann to the mall with them and at some point one of several things happens: Either Rachel and Renee lose track of Julie, and she vanishes, prompting the girls to run off in hopes that they won’t be in trouble for it. Another is that Rachel and Renee met up with some guys and decided to do drugs that afternoon, and in doing so, allowed Julie Ann to try drugs as well. The theory would suggest that Julie Ann had a negative reaction to the drugs and became ill and died, prompting the other two girls to run off and avoid the consequences of their actions. Finally, in this line of thought, there is the theory that Rachel and Renee wanted to get rid of Julie Ann, and so they allowed a mutual friend, or someone they thought they could trust, to give her a ride home, and when she didn’t arrive home, they fled. All of the theories in this line are highly suspect, and extremely thin and, I believe, extremely unlikely. But, they are theories that exist, and in the interest of full disclosure, I wanted to deliver them.
There is a small list of highly suspect criminals who were in the area at the time, or have been suspected of, or convicted of, similar crimes in the area. Is it possible that the three girls fell victim to a notorious rapist or serial killer? Unfortunately, yes.
James DeBardeleben, known as “Mike”, was a convicted kidnapper, rapist, counterfeiter and suspected serial killer. He was referred to in the press as the “Mall Passer” due to his history of passing counterfeit bills in shopping malls. While under investigation for this, the Secret Service produced composites of the man they suspected to be the Mall Passer. When he was captured, investigators searched his vehicle and found wads of counterfeit $20 bills labeled with the city in which he planned to use them. In addition, they found a disturbing series of photographs as well as audio recordings. These photographs depicted victims in the process of being raped, and or murdered and the audio appeared to be the screams of victims being tortured. According to an FBI profiler, the photos in which DeBardeleben showed his face included victims he murdered. In photos where his face was not shown, these were victims who he let go. The Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders, Volume 4, listed DeBardeleben as an example of sexual sadism.
So how does he fit into the disappearance of Rachel Trlica, Renee Wilson and Julie Ann Moseley? DeBardeleben was known to have operated in Texas, and specifically in the Fort Worth area. In fact, in what could be either an indicator of his involvement, or merely a very odd coincidence, DeBardeleben lived in his parents home which was in close proximity to the Seminary South Shopping Center. Another piece of information which also possibly links DeBardeleben to the missing girls is the fact that part of his MO was to dress up as and impersonate figures of authority, such as police officers and security guards. DeBardeleben was known for kidnapping potential victims, and in at least one instance, Police are aware that he kidnapped and held a victim captive in the attic of his home. In Fort Worth, Texas. Rusty, Rachel’s brother, stated in a 2012 interview that DeBardeleben lived a half mile from his sisters home at the time of the disappearance.
The evidence is thin, but for those who believe that DeBardeleben was involved, it essentially goes like this: If Mike DeBardeleben was in the area at the time, and a woman or women vanished, he was likely responsible. However, this could never be confirmed, and as far as I can tell, DeBardeleben had little to say about this case, if anything at all. Investigators actually have stated that they were somewhat impressed by the fact that DeBardeleben had the ability to shut his mouth, and never answer a question. Essentially, if he didn’t want to talk, he didn’t, and when it came to the police, he didn’t want to talk. Ultimately, he was convicted of other crimes and sentenced to 375 years in prison. In January of 2011, DeBardeleben died of pneumonia while incarcerated in North Carolina. His possible connection to the missing girls is speculated, but not proven. Law enforcement has had little to say on the possible link between his crimes and the disappearance.
Another name which comes up on the list of possibilities is Edward Howard Bell. Bell is an admitted sex offender and convicted murderer who had claimed to be a serial killer. In 1978, Bell arrived in a Pasadena, Texas suburb and emerged from his vehicle, nude from the waist down. A witness saw Bell approaching a group of children and notified her son, Larry Dickens. Dickens told his mother to call the police, and confronted Bell. Bell attempted to leave the scene, but Dickens took the keys out of his ignition and refused to give them back. Bell produced a pistol, and fired several shots into Dickens who still held tight to the keys. Dicken’s mother was on the phone with the police, and came outside to help her son. Bell demanded his keys, and fired a shot into Dickens head. He took the keys, went back to his vehicle, and returned moments later, this time with a rifle. He fired several shots into Dickens, who died on the scene before police arrived.
Police managed to catch Bell within an hour of the crime, but when he was released on bail, he fled. Bell was on the run for nearly twenty years, and was arrested in Panama in 1993. He was extradicted back to the United States where he was found guilty of murder and sentenced to 70 years in prison. Since his sentencing, Bell has admitted to multiple murders, kidnappings and sex crimes. It’s been reported that he has been able to describe several crimes, in great detail. Bell would go on to claim that he was brainwashed by members of a top secret government program to terrorize and murder young girls. Among the crimes Bell has confessed to is the kidnapping and murder of Rachel Trlica, Renee Wilson and Julie Ann Moseley. The problem with this is, Police simply don’t believe him.
Bell has never been charged with any of the crimes he confessed to, and although speculative, this is likely due to the fact that his details on the incidents didn’t match up with evidence in the possession of investigators. It’s also believed that Bell had major psychological problems and is a pathological liar, so again, without solid proof, it’s impossible to link him to any of the crimes. Much like DeBardeleben, the only thing which links him to the missing girls is the fact that he was an active killer and sex offender in the state of Texas, specifically in the Houston area, during the time the crimes were commited.
The last big name on the suspect list comes with a connection a similar case. On March 25th, 1975, 10 year old Katherine Lyons and her sister 12 year old Sheila Lyons left their home in Kensington, Maryland to walk to the Wheaton Plaza shopping center in Wheaton, Maryland. Around 2pm, the girls were seen by their older brother eating pizza at the Orange Bowl Restaurant. Later witnesses would report seeing the girls, apparently walking home, with the last sighting being at 2:30pm. The girls never arrived home.
A witness came forward stating that he had seen the girls talking to an unidentified man who was carrying a brief case with a tape recorder inside of it. Other children reported the same man, saying that he held out a microphone for them to speak into. Police consider this a viable suspect, and had composite drawings of him passed around. Lloyd Welch would come to the mall shortly after the description of the man had been printed in the papers, and reported being there the day the Lyon sisters disappeared. Police took Welch in, and questioned him about what he saw. According to Welch, he had seen the girls talking to the man with the tape recorder, and later saw the man shoving the girls into a car. Welch was given a polygraph, which he failed. When informed that he failed, Welch admitted that he made the story up, and police released him.
No sign of the girls was found, but new information did come to light. A friend of the girls later came forward and said that a man had been staring at them at the mall, and that she had confronted him. Another composite what drawn up based on this description.This description was very different from the one of the man with the tape recorder, and interestingly, the composite closely resembled a 1977 mugshot of Lloyd Welch.
In February of 2014, Welch was named as a person of interest in the Lyon Sisters disappearance. In December of that year, Welch’s cousin Henry Parker, told detectives that in 1975 he met Welch at a property in Virginia where he helped unload two duffel bags from Welch’s vehicle. The bags weighed around 60 to 70 pounds a piece, were stained red, and according to Parker, smelled like death. Parker and Welch threw the bags into a fire. Parker never asked any questions.
This handout image provided by the Montgomery County, Md., Police Department shows the Montgomery County Police mugshot of Lloyd Welch in 1977 after Welch was arrested for a residential burglary near Wheaton Plaza. Police affidavits say a sex offender told investigators he left a Maryland shopping mall with two young sisters who disappeared in 1975, and that he later saw his uncle sexually assaulting one of the girls. Authorities have been searching for the remains of 12-year-old Sheila Lyon and 10-year-old Katharine Lyon on a remote mountain in Bedford County, Virginia, some 200 miles from their Montgomery County, Maryland, home, since September. A Bedford grand jury also is investigating. The Washington Post reports that Montgomery County police declined to say how credible they find 58-year-old Lloyd Welch’s recent statements. Police have named Welch and his uncle, 69-year-old Richard Welch, “persons of interest” in the case, but neither has been charged.
In February of 2015, Welch was serving a lengthy sentence in Delaware on a child-molestation conviction. Police indicted him on first degree felony murder charges for his alleged responsibility for the murder of Katherine and Sheila Lyons. He was also charged with abduction and intent to defile. The bodies have to this day never been found, and Welch is currently awaiting trial on the charges. Being that Welch has a history of child molestation, and is now under indictment for murder in 1975, it isn’t hard to see the connection. Especially when you take a look at the timeline of where he has been over the years. Welch worked for a traveling carnival, which often set up in Mall parking lots. In March of 1974, Welch was indeed in the state of Texas, located in Austin at the time. He would leave Texas in March of 1975, just three months after the girls disappeared, and the very month that the Lyon sisters would vanish.
There were speculated connections between the cases even prior to Welch being named a suspect in the case of the Lyon sisters. Both crimes involved more than one girl, and both abductions took place at a shopping mall. Curiously enough, Welch’s girlfriend traveled with him, and during their time in Texas, she worked as a security guard at the Westfield Plaza Shopping Center. Again, we see a recurrence of the security guard theme in this case. Helen has since passed away, but police are deeply interested in finding out everything they can about her life, and whereabouts in connection to Lloyd Welch.
The final theory I will discuss today is a very dark, but highly likely one. This theory is that Rachel Trlica, Renee Wilson and Julie Ann Moseley never left the Seminary Southern Shopping Center that day. Based on the fact that presents were placed in the car, it’s known that at some point, the girls returned to it, but it is unknown whether or not they went back in. Supposing that they did, it’s possible that they ran into foul play while in the mall itself.
It seems unlikely, a busy mall two days before Christmas, someone would have noticed something. Certainly, someone would have seen something, but there were places in the mall that were not as frequently traveled. The mall itself was three levels, and had basements beneath many of the buildings. I’ve seen several reports of dark, basement areas and even lit ones which were used for gatherings, musical events and the like. Some have theorized that the three girls either entered one of these areas, or were forced into one. It’s entirely possible that someone could have pulled the girls into an area such as this, or they could have followed someone who convinced them to come along. Either way, if the girls wound up in one of those basement areas, they may have found themselves secluded. At this point, the suspect could have killed them, raped them, or both. It would be difficult to conceal the bodies down there, but without having been there, it’s hard to know if we are talking solid concrete basements, or if there were areas of dirt or soft material which could have been used to conceal the bodies. It’s a thin theory, but in this case, almost every theory is thin.
The disappearance of Rachel Trlica, Renee Wilson and Julie Ann Moseley is incredibly frustrating due to the lack of evidence, and the strange circumstances under which these three seemingly vanished into nothing. It has broken families, turned brother against sister and left a gaping hole where there could, and should have, been three beautiful lives lived to their fullest. December of 2014 marked the 40th anniversary of their disappearance, and a candlelight vigil was held in the very spot where the car had been found in 1974.
“Nobody was here. We found the car here. Right here in this parking lot. 40 years later and we’re still wondering what’s going on.” This statement was made by Janet Moseley Henley, the sister of Julie Ann Moseley at the vigil. Rusty Arnold, Rachel’s brother, has never given up hope that the answers will be found and that his sister is alive. At the vigil, Rusty said “I think about her. I dream about her. She was in my heart always. All three of these girls.”
Unfortunately, Rayanne Moseley, Julie’s mom, passed away in 2014 and never got to see justice served, nor learn the fate of her daughter. During the ceremony, three pigeons are released, representing each of the missing girls. At the vigil, a fourth pigeon was added, to represent the passing of Rayanne. Despite it all, Rusty believes they are getting closer to an answer. At the vigil, Rusty said “Good things are happening. I can’t say it on air, but we’re hoping to have some answers soon. Somebody knows something. They need to come forward and give us some peace. You know, I got to say to whoever did this. You know who you are. You know what you did. Your time’s coming.”
Nearly three years later, in July of 2017, there don’t appear to be any additional answers. The website Rusty compiled on the case: missingtrio.com hasn’t been updated in several years. Reportedly, Rusty has said that law enforcement requested he not update it in order to not reveal too much information to a possible suspect. Rusty was 11 years old when his sister Rachel went missing, he’s now in his mid 50’s and spent his life trying to find the truth. A search which has caused a rift between he, and his sister Debra. Rachel’s disappearance hit the family hard, but now it is a family divided by speculation and doubt.
Renee Wilson’s parents don’t believe they will ever see their daughter again. Her father, Richard, said in an interview “I know there’s somebody out there that knows what happened. But they’re keeping their mouth shut awful tight.” The three families have grown apart of the years, talking only occasionally. Whenever a new piece of information emerges, or the case shifts hands, they come back together, hoping for answers, hoping for justice.
The Charley Project has a page for each of the missing girls, including age progressed images to show what they would look like today. The Doe network, a website where volunteers can look at unidentified decedents and try to find their true identities is frequented with possible matches to the girls, but none have stuck so far. DNA continues to find no matches, and no one has come forward with answers. Lloyd Welch rots in prison, awaiting his trial for the murders of the Lyon sisters, and it remains to be seen if any connection can be established between him and the disappearance of the Fort Worth Three.
Short of a verified confession, the discovery of a body which can be matched, or a miraculous piece of evidence breaking the case open, the disappearance of Rachel Trlica, Renee Wilson and Julie Ann Moseley remains an unsolved tragedy that haunts their families, and all of us, who have been touched by their story.
[Thoughts & Theories]
Prior to researching the disappearance of the Fort Worth Three, I had heard about the case, and even read a bit about it. I knew the general story, about the strange disappearance. What I didn’t know was how many twists and turns there were, nor how complicated the theories would be. I have to admit, I’m sort of shocked by the minimal amount of coverage this case has gotten. I don’t know if it has to do with how long ago it occurred, or if it’s based more around the fact that there appears to be so much circumstantial evidence. Other, similar cases, have gotten much more attention in the media, and always pop up on lists of strange and shocking disappearances. Yes, I did find mention of the Fort Worth Three on these lists, but go on YouTube and look for a television clip, or documentary series about it and you’re going to be searching for a long time. Search on Google and you’ll find a lot of forums, and a few newspaper articles, but most of them are regurgitating the same information and cannibalizing one another’s so-called facts.
And that is another difficulty in relation to this case. To get down to the bare bones of what the actual facts are can be a completely complicated mess in and of itself. There are plenty of pieces of information that are reported as facts, but when you really dig in, you’ll find that there aren’t any actual officially supported evidence to verify many of those so-called facts. What we do know, for certain, presents a frustrating case of, for lack of a better definition, a complete and utter vanishing. Three girls went to the mall and were never seen nor heard from again. Their names are often left out, and they are simply defined as the Fort Worth Three. They were much more than that. They were Rachel Trlica, Renee Wilson and Julie Ann Moseley. They were sisters and daughters, wives and girlfriends. They were cousins and aunts, friends and schoolmates. And then they were gone.
During the course of my research, I reached out to Rachel’s brother, Rusty. I sent a short email, explaining that I would be doing my next episode on his sister’s case, delivered my condolences for the loss, and asked if there were any details he wanted me to include for sure, and any information or statements he wanted to present. I didn’t hear back, but I also can’t imagine how often Mr. Arnold is bombarded by people looking for information. If, at any point, I do hear back, I’d like to have Mr. Arnold join me for a discussion of the case, which I would release later as a part two of this episode. Until then, I have done the best I could to present the case as accurately as possible. Some of the information which I researched came from the website “missingtrio.com” which is run by Rusty Arnold. The site hasn’t been updated in a few years, although I am not sure there is a great deal to add. Rusty has a gofundme page which is attempting to raise $5,000 in an attempt to conduct some sort of test or examination related to DNA.
From all accounts I have read, Rachel Trlica, Renee Wilson and Julie Ann Moseley were sweet girls. They hadn’t been in any kind of trouble, and for the older girls, I could find no accounts of drugs use or anything criminal or out of the ordinary. Their families define them as good girls who had so much potential, and great lives ahead of them. Rachel was seventeen, and had been married for a few months to Thomas Trlica. She had become a step mother to his two year old son and relished in it. According to her family, and Tommy, she doted on the boy and was very excited to be a part of his life. Renee had a crush on Terry Moseley, and to her hearts content, the day she vanished, he had presented her with a promise ring and devoted himself to her. She was a kind girl, only fourteen years of age and hardly beginning the best stages of her life. Julie Ann Mosely was nine, a sweet an innocent child who hadn’t even begun to understand the world in which she lived. She looked at everything with a curiosity, and like most children, wanted to play with her friends and have fun. The usual for a child of that age. Who knows what these girls could have gone on to do with their lives, but sadly, that is a question which can never be answered. On December 23rd, 1974, everything changed for the worse and on a simple trip to the mall to do some last minute Christmas shopping, the girls vanished without a trace and were never seen nor heard from again.
Renee went along with her friend. At fourteen, it had to be exciting to be friends with a seventeen year old who could drive. She wanted to be back early, no later than 4pm because she had made plans to attend a Christmas party with Terry, and she was incredibly excited. She wanted the extra time to get ready, and to look her best that night. Julie Ann asked to tag along, mostly out of the boredom that day. Her brother Terry couldn’t go, with plans to visit a sick friend at his home, and told her to ask their mother. Julie Ann called her mother, who was working at the time, and begged and pleaded. At first, Julie’s mother didn’t want her to go. She knew Renee, and trusted her, but she didn’t know Rachel and wasn’t sure she wanted her daughter to be driven around town with someone she didn’t know. Ultimately, she acquiesced, a decision which would haunt her for the rest of her life. According to her mother, the last time she saw Julie was the night before, when she was sleeping in her bed. She could never have imagined that this would be the last time she’d see her daughter.
Rachel didn’t know Julie, according to what we know, but allowed her to come along at Renee’s suggestion. The three girls departed sometime before 12pm, and made their first stop at a local Army / Navy Store where one of them, presumably Rachel, had some Christmas gifts on layaway. Shortly after, they proceeded to the Seminary Southern Shopping Center and began their shopping. Many witnesses reported seeing them in the mall that day, remembering Renee’s shirt which was emblazoned with the words “Sweet Honesty.” After their disappearances, there would be multiple reports of something strange happening in the parking lot involving the girls.
When Police arrived on the scene, they found Christmas presents locked inside the car. This suggests the girls had exited the mall at some point, and put the items inside. Whether or not this was their final stop, or if they planned to go back into the mall for more shopping is unknown. It is at this point that the three girls disappear in a manner which has baffled police, private investigators and internet detectives for years. How is it possible that people can simply disappear? Well, it isn’t. Something happened to them, and the question of what has haunted everyone involved in the case since that December 23rd.
By 4pm the families were worried, by 6pm they were searching the mall, and by 11pm the Police were involved. The next day, the mysterious letter alleged to have been written by Rachel arrived in her husbands mailbox. There has been much debate and speculation about the letter, its author and its point of origin. Many theories would arise over the years, some purported by Police, some from the families, others from independent third parties who were investigating the case for themselves, for the families, or for their own curiosity. Suspects would be named, and some connections could be made. So what of these theories and suspects, what makes sense, what doesn’t, and what happened here?
Let’s begin with the letter. The letter arrived the day after the disappearance. I don’t know about in your town, but when I send a letter across town, it takes more than a day to arrive. Maybe, in this particular area, they were pretty quick at turning mail around, but you’d have to assume the letter was dropped at the post office before 5pm (when most post offices close.) That would mean, sometime between the girlsarrival at the mall at approximately 12:30-12:45pm, this letter would have to be written and mailed within 3 hours and 15 minutes. It’s not a long letter, so that wouldn’t be a problem, but isn’t it strange that there was such a rapid turn around? I suppose the letter could have been dropped in a box over night, processed the next morning and delivered the next day. Either way, we are talking about a pretty quick turn around. Regardless, what was the purpose of the letter in the first place?
We know that the letter claimed to be written by Rachel, read: “I know I’m going to catch it, but we just had to get away. We’re going to Houston. See you in about a week. The car is in Sear’s upper lot. Love Rachel.” First and foremost, no one who read this letter, and knew Rachel thought it sounded anything like her. Secondly, everyone who knew her handwriting said it didn’t look anything like it. In fact, the writing was described as being written by a child, or someone who is illiterate. Also, handwriting analysis showed the letter as being written with a right hand, and Rachel was left handed. Not to mention the apparent misspelling of her name, and the fact that the letter was addressed to “Thomas A. Trlica” and not Tommy, as everyone who knew him referred to him. The entire letter is suspicious.
Looking at what it says, I’ve always felt that the expression “I know I’m going to catch it” is strange. It feels so dismissive, like, I know I’m going to get in trouble, but whatever. It’s a very backhanded apology. Then it says “we just had to get away.” Who had to get away? A seventeen year old, fourteen year old and a nine year old? Get away from what? “We’re going to Houston.” According to everyone in the girl’s lives, they had no family or attachments in Houston. There was no one there, and no place, for them to be going. Also, if you just have to get away and you’re going to Houston, why did you buy Christmas presents that night if you had no plans of delivering them? “See you in about a week. The car is in Sear’s upper lot. Love Rachel.” You’re going away for a week, without any supplies, no changes of clothes. You’re not telling your parents, or the other girl’s parents, and you’re just going. This makes absolutely no sense.
The entire letter is nonsensical. Rachel was friends with Renee, but she hadn’t met Julie Ann until that morning. She had a two year old stepson at home, a husband, and her family. There is no way this was a planned trip, and I sincerely doubt it came up out of nowhere. Also, let’s play devil’s advocate and pretend for a second that Rachel decided to take this trip, why would she take the other girls with her? Especially Julie Ann. If there is anything in this case that I consider to be an absolute fraud, it’s this letter. I don’t believe for a second that Rachel wrote it, that the girls decided to get away, that they decided to take a nine year old with them or that they were going anywhere by their own choice. This letter is an absolute fabrication from start to end. So the question becomes, who wrote it and why?
The first, and I think most likely theory, is that the letter was written by the abductor or abductors. Assuming they abducted the girls, and since Rachel was driving, it would have been fairly easy to either obtain her address from her license, or by forcing her to tell it. Back during the 70’s, a lot of disappearances were written up as runaways. There are several examples of murderers and kidnappers who would forge letters to their victims families either to by themselves time, confuse the police, or to simply throw investigators off their trail. Possible? Absolutely. I can’t begin to get into the mindset of someone who would be twisted enough to commit this crime, but considering how twisted it is, it’s hard to imagine the person or persons wouldn’t do something like this.
The other possibility, and the one which many of the family members believe, including Rachel’s brother, is that her sister Debra wrote the letter. Testing was conducted, and from everything I have seen, they were unable to prove that she wrote it. She was asked multiple times to take a polygraph, and Rusty claims that she eventually consented and that the results showed deception. I can’t find actual proof of this, nor a statement from authorities confirming it. The question is, could Debra have knowledge of what happened, have written the letter, planned the whole thing, or maybe some combination of all three?
There’s an old Latin phrase “Cui bono” – “who benefits?” Did Debra benefit in any way from this occurring? None that we know of. Some have speculated that because of her previous relationship with Tommy, she was jealous and wanted her sister Rachel out of the picture. Crimes like this are not uncommon, even amongst family members, but Tommy left town a year after the disappearance. From everything we know, Debra and Tommy did not get involved following Rachel’s disappearance so if it was him she wanted, that didn’t work out. Some have called Debra a drama queen or someone who always wants attention, but the disappearance of her sister shifted all attention away from her. Not to mention, she’s been fairly restrained in terms of interviews and media appearances, so this doesn’t seem to be something she wanted. There’s the possibility that there was some kind of monetary exchange involved, that Debra was paid to set her sister up, but this doesn’t make sense to me either. I honestly believe that if Debra has knowledge of the disappearance, it isn’t as a co-conspirator, but perhaps something she found out after, or a person she suspects of being involved.
Whatever the case with Debra, we may never know. I know she had some troubled times in her life following the disappearance. You can argue infinitely whether or not these demons that she faced were as a result of her grief, or of her guilt. She has stated publicly, time and time again, that she doesn’t know what happened, or where her sister could be. Members of the family, including her own brother, have implicated her in the disappearance. There is no evidence to support their claims, and when Debra gave a public interview, they responded begging for her to tell what she knows. If Debra knows anything, she isn’t talking, and it is something that she will take to her grave. I honestly don’t know where I stand on this. It’s so hard to imagine someone would do this to her own sister, but stranger and more twisted things have happened. I think the problem I have with the entire scenario involving Debra is that, if she wanted revenge on Rachel, why take it out on Renee and Julie as well, unless she didn’t know they were going to be there. When even your brother think you had a part to play in things, that doesn’t speak well of your character. I can’t say whether she was involved or not, but I do believe it’s possible that she knows more than she is telling, even if it is just a gut feeling.
Then there are the words of convicted murderer James McAlphin, who murdered El Dorado Jane Doe and claims that she was friends with the girls from Fort Worth, that they had been kept in a home and forced into prostitution. The man gives very few details, and claims he will give more for $4000. That is a really strange sum of money to request, especially when an investigator has offered $25,000 in exchange for information leading to an arrest. I am not going to get too deep into McAlphin, because, frankly, I don’t believe a word the guy has to say. He’s a notorious liar, he’s a convicted murdered who still denies he committed the crime despite the fact that witnesses were there. I honestly believe he just chose something he thought people would pay him for. I consider every statement of James McAlphin’s to be complete and utter trash. He won’t even reveal the true name of El Dorado Jane Doe, which frankly, I doubt he even knows. This is just a red herring mixed into the case and I think to invest too much time or thought on someone like James McAlphin is a complete waste of time.
Then we have the theory that the girls chose to run away under some dark circumstances, namely being that either Rachel and Renee lost track of Julie Ann, and when she couldn’t be found they decided to run. The second part of this possibility was that, at some point, Rachel and Renee met up with some people, got involved in drugs, and Renee perished either by indulging in the drugs, or by some other method, and in order to escape punishment for the incident, Renee and Rachel ran off. I think both of these theories are pretty silly, and fairly flawed. Looking at the latter first, it seems unlikely that Renee and Rachel would be capable of disposing of Julie Ann’s body in such a way that it would never be found. I also consider it highly unlikely that if they left of their own accord, that they could go for forty years without ever contacting anyone in their families. We know that Rachel cared deeply for her step-son, and to simply dispose of Julie Ann’s body is in direct contrast to that personality type. I can’t believe that for a second. If Julie Ann was kidnapped, or lost, I fully believe that Rachel and Renee would have been seen looking for her, would have asked for help, and would have called the police. Again, neither of these theories make a great deal of sense to me, and seem more out of a result of people grasping at straws. I don’t believe either of them, and I don’t put any weight into them at all. I do not believe either Rachel or Renee were the types of people who would do something like this. There simply isn’t any evidence to suggest either of these theories could be possible. As I stated in the evidence section of this episode, I simply covered these theories in the interest of full disclosure.
This brings us to the theory that convicted murderer and rapist James DeBardeleben was responsible. I think this is the first theory that carries some merit. DeBardeleben was known for kidnapping, raping and murdering women. He was defined as a sexual sadist, and police said in interrogation he was nearly impossible to break. He has a long history of crimes, and lived in the area at the time. We know he made audio recordings, and took photos of victims. As far as I understand, none of the photos appeared to depict any of the three girls. That doesn’t mean he wasn’t involved, I suppose he could have had more photos somewhere else which were never discovered, but his crimes were one on one. He wasn’t known to strike against multiple women at a time.
DeBardeleben held one particular victim in the attic of a home in Fort Worth, and at the time of the disappearance, he reportedly lived less than half a mile from Rachel. Is it possible he saw Rachel at some point in time and decided he wanted her? Definitely. Also, fact in that DeBardeleben was known for frequenting shopping malls where he passed counterfeit money could easily him at Seminary South. The detail I find most fascinating is that he was also reported to wear uniforms to gain his victims trust. Several witnesses put the girls in the company of a man in a security guard uniform. Is it possible that this man was DeBardeleben? I’d have to say yes. So, he was in the area, he kidnapped, raped and murdered, and dressed in uniforms to trick his victims. All of these would match up, and make DeBardeleben a likely suspect. The problem is, he wasn’t going to admit to anything he didn’t want to, and even if the police questioned him on the topic of the missing girls, it’s unlikely that he would have told them. At that point, it wasn’t a matter of not wanting to get convicted, but more likely a matter of getting some sick pleasure out of keeping the secret. I think there is a very good chance that DeBardeleben played a role in this.
My problem is, it seems unlikely that it could have been a random encounter. If he had seen Rachel, or maybe one of the other girls, and decided he was going to take her, I can’t imagine he’d have felt as comfortable doing it when there were three of them. Three victims are hard to control, and though there are ways of doing it that I don’t really want to go into detail on, I feel like he’d have been dissuaded by trying to take all of them. Any of them could have screamed out or ran, and he’d have been needing to make a quick exit. Had he put on a security guard uniform, he may have been able to get them into his vehicle, but that would be a very big gamble for him to make, and to commit the crime in broad daylight at a busy mall just doesn’t seem like his style. He got away with his crimes for a very long time, and most of what he had done wasn’t even known until they found the photographs in his car. He was a sick individual, but not a stupid and impulsive one.
There is the possibility that he had stalked one of the girls, and follow her to the mall that day, but again, it seems more likely that he would have waited for her to be alone before making his move. The idea of there being three is the key piece which dissuades me from believing he is responsible, but many other details put me in the position of having to say that DeBardeleben is my number one suspect in this crime.
Edward Howard Bell is next on this list, but only exists on the list because he confessed to the crime, along with many, many others. Much like the case of James McAlphin, here we have a career criminal with a history of lying. In addition to that, Bell is reported to have psychological issues, although no one will go into much detail about it. Bell operated in Texas, and was known to be a rapist, child molester and murderer. After the murder of Larry Dickens, Bell is reported to have broke into a woman’s home with the intent to rape, and possibly murder her. Bell ran off when the woman produced a gun. In the Dickens murder he was brazen, exposing himself to children in broad daylight, and then committing murder right in front of the victims mother. This is an interesting contrast, and I think signifies impulse control and an inability to calculate consequences, or to simply not care about them. I don’t think his crimes match up with what happened to Rachel, Renee and Julie. He was convicted of murder, but he wasn’t considered to be a serial killer. Police were unable to establish a history of these kinds of crimes, and were never able to verify his involvement in any of the murders or crimes he reportedly took credit for. I think Bell is a consideration, but a slim one and I don’t see anything in particular to point him towards this crime other than the fact that he was in Texas at the time it occurred.
Lloyd Welch is another suspect who was known to be in Texas at the time. Welch’s involvement in the kidnapping and murder of the Lyon sisters has been well established, and we know this crime took place in March of 1975, just three months after the disappearance in Fort Worth. The problem I have with Welch is that he was a pedophile and child molester. The Lyon sisters were 12 and 10 at the time he allegedly abducted them. This fits his profile. Julie Ann was 9, and Renee was 14, and they might have fit into his MO, but Rachel certainly didn’t. I think, if anything, the presence of someone older would have been enough to dissuade Welch from approaching the girls.
In the case of the Lyon sisters, he is alleged to have taken them in broad daylight. The problem is, they were young and possibly easy for him to trick. Rachel wouldn’t be, and I doubt she’d have gone along with him without making a fuss about it. It’s always possible he had a weapon, and threatened the girls with it, to keep them quiet, but I still find it difficult to believe he’d make a move with someone older present. Police records indicate that he was in Austin from January of 74 to March of 75. Austin is approximately 175 miles south of Fort Worth. A nearly three hour drive away. It’s certainly possible that Welch visited the Fort Worth area and spent time there, but there is nothing to place him there at any point in time. We know that Welch had a girlfriend, who was a security guard in Austin, so it’s not outside of the realm of possibility that he used her to lure the girls into a situation from which they couldn’t escape. Of course, this suggests that his girlfriend was in on his crimes, and at least in the case of the Lyon sisters, there has been nothing to indicate she was in on it.
Some have theorized that Welch could have used her uniform and pretended to be a security guard to lure the girls in himself. Possible, but I think a little unlikely. Welch would had to have been at the mall that day, with the uniform ready to go, and felt courageous enough to kidnap three girls from a busy mall parking lot. I think that’s a lot of details that have to line up, and though truth can sometimes be stranger than fiction, I think Welch’s involvement in this crime is a reach. Since his indictment, other victims have come forward and accused Welch of attempting to abduct them. He is suspected of 14 criminal incidents between 1973 and 1997. In a lot of these cases though, where potential victims escaped, it was because someone else arrived, or the victim drew attention to the man. In one particular incident, a 12 year old girl’s brother came walking up, and Welch ran off. If he is willing to run away when a child approaches, I think he’s much more likely to run off when a 17 year old is present. A lot of people link Welch to the crime because he kidnapped the Lyon sisters from near a mall, and Rachel, Renee and Julie were taken from a mall, but that’s an extremely thin connection. I think that Welch should be looked at, and questioned in relation to this crime, but I don’t think he’s right for it. I think he’s a sick, disturbed criminal but unless something more is discovered, anything that links him to the Fort Worth Three is a leap of faith.
I briefly discussed the theory that the girls never left the mall that day. This would fall under the concept of a total stranger abduction or murder. There are two ways I could see this going: Someone or a group of someones saw the girls that day and decided to do something horrible. Either they wanted to rape, to murder, to rob, to abduct or some combination of all. The mall did have basement areas where things like this could be concealed, but short of being able to dig through a floor, find an open space between some walls, I don’t think it’s possible that the girls’ bodies could have been concealed there. Although it’s possible, I consider it highly unlikely.
Online there has been some debate over a photo that was found floating around discussion boards related to convicted rapist and serial killer, Rodney Alcala. He is often famously referred to as the Dating Game Killer, since he appeared on the television show in 1978, right in the middle of his murder spree. In this photo there is a woman who bares a striking resemblance to Rachel Trlica. It appears to be somewhat of an old school selfie style photo. Many people think this is a photo of Rachel, and that this photograph connects Alcala to the Fort Worth Three. The main problem with this claim, and the reason I didn’t include it in the evidence section, is that Alcala was incarcerated in 1974. He couldn’t physically have been present in Fort Worth, or at the mall, on December 23rd. He wasn’t released until 1977. Although this is a hotly debated theory, it doesn’t seem to be possible.
So that leaves the possibility that this stranger, or strangers, abducted all three girls at some point that afternoon or early evening. We have heard Rachel’s sister suggest the possibility of “white slavery.” James McAlphin claimed the girls were held captive and forced into prostitution. These are, sadly, possibilities but I find it hard to believe they could be so thoroughly controlled as to live in the same area from which they disappeared and to never make contact with their families. We know Rusty claims that Rachel has been seen in the area in the years she vanished, but there doesn’t appear to be anything to corroborate this. I think, if a stranger abduction took place, that all three girls were likely murdered within days, or even hours, of their abduction. The Christmas gifts were still in the car, and the car was left behind, so whoever did this would have had to had his own transportation. I don’t think robbery was a motive, since I don’t think a thief would also kidnap the three of them.
I think this leaves us with a motive of murder, and possibly rape. What I have always wondered is, how would the stranger have gotten all three under his control without creating a scene? A weapon, possibly. Or, would it have been easier to trick the girls into a false sense of security? This is where the idea of a security guard or police impersonator comes into play. DeBardeleben would dress up to trick his victims. In at least one instance, Lloyd Welch claimed to be a police officer to trick a potential victim. It isn’t impossible that someone else was doing something similar. We have two witnesses who claim to have spotted the girls in the presence of a male security guard and a truck. The female witness stated she saw a security guard “hustling” the girls into his truck. The other witness, former Fort Worth Police Officer and Sears security guard Hutchinson, says he interacted with the security guard who had the three girls in his truck.
For a long time, I thought it was possible that this so-called security guard could have been an imposter. That would work in the case of the female witness, but you’d assume Hutchinson would know a fellow security guard, unless he wasn’t claiming to be a sears security guard. According to Fort Worth Police, they eventually tracked down the Security Guard that Hutchinson said he saw, and questioned him about the girls, but he swore he hadn’t seen them, and that they had never been in his truck. Is it possible that Hutchinson gave the name of a security guard he knew worked there at the time, but that this wasn’t the man who he had spoken to that day, and so Police questioned the wrong man? It’s a very convoluted path to take, but if we are dealing with a security guard, and a possible imposter, in the same place at the same time, it could get quite confusing. Especially when it exists only in a memory that had been warped by the passage of nearly 30 years. If it were an imposter, he could have easily told Hutchinson that he worked for another store, or the mall itself, and Hutchinson would have no reason to doubt him. He could even have given Hutchinson the name of another security guard who worked the mall, which would explain how police managed to find and question him years later, and there is no way of knowing if this was a man that Hutchinson knew previously, or was seeing for the first time. I can’t help but question whether Hutchinson ever saw this man working again, and could verify that it was the same person, or if he never saw him after that day. I often wonder if Hutchinson was shown photos of DeBardeleben or Welch. I would like to believe he was, but he wasn’t interviewed for nearly thirty years after the incident occurs, and memories fade.
Neither Welch nor DeBardeleben was known for sending letters to the victims families, but that happens in this case and do this day I still don’t fully understand why, and neither do the families. There are so many details that just don’t make sense. The idea that three girls can go to a mall and vanish into nothing is remarkably frustrating, baffling and tragic. There are pieces of evidence which exist, but have never been able to provide much. The DNA found on the letter, for one. It exists, and it has been tested against many suspects but to no avail. Witnesses who claim to have seen the girls, but these accounts could never be verified. It’s truly startling how something like this could happen and in the nearly 40 years since… nothing much has been figured out. No major leads, no new evidence, no strongly supported theories. At least, none that investigators will share with us. Rusty and Dan James, his private investigator friend, claim to have further information, but they aren’t talking either.
The one major issue with the stranger abduction situation is… Police firmly believe that at least one of the girls knew, or trusted, the person and went along willingly. Police have said that they believe the girls chose to go with this person, and things only turned badly after they were in his or her company. This is an interesting fact, which could tie back to the idea of Rachel’s sister Debra knowing more, or somehow being involved. If she knew the person who was responsible, there is a good chance that Rachel would have known this person as well. Of course, it’s entirely possible that we have someone pretending to be in a position of authority, such as a police officer or mall security guard, as previously discussed. I am curious what it is that makes police so sure the girls went along willingly. They may not have found signs of a struggle, but some witnesses reported seeing the girls forced into vehicles which doesn’t sound willing to me. Every detail seems to lead to a dead end, or a vicious cycle of questions, more questions and no answers.
Rachel Trlica, Renee Wilson and Julie Ann Moseley were last seen at Seminary South Shopping Center in Fort Worth Texas on December 23rd, 1974. Theories abound about what could have happened to them. Suspects are listed, but few legit connection can be made to the disappearance. There are questions of plenty, and answers so few. How can it be that these three girls could simply vanish without a trace and nearly half a decade later we know almost nothing more than we did the day they disappeared?
This tragic crime left families shattered, divided brothers and sisters, confounded the police, and with each year that passes names are forgotten, relatives pass away, and the memories that still keep the girls alive become a little more fragmented. Although I would love to believe that it’s possible that the girls survived, my heart cannot overpower my mind. Unfortunately, I do believe the girls are gone, and were likely murdered before, or slightly after, the letter was delivered to Tommy Trlica. Short of a miraculous piece of evidence surfacing to break the case, an outright confession, or the discovery of one or more of the bodies, this case may never have a resolution. The disappearance of the Fort Worth Three is a cautionary tale. There are people out there who only wish to do harm and who have the darkest of intentions. One day, perhaps we will learn the fate of Rachel Trlica, Renee Wilson and Julie Ann Moseley. Until then, the disappearance of the Fort Worth Three remains a haunting and heartbreaking mystery.