missing, Stories, true crime

The Vanishing of the Fort Worth Three

H.P. Lovecraft once said, “The oldest and strongest emotion of mankind is fear, and the oldest and strongest kind of fear is the fear of the unknown”. Three families in Fort Worth, Texas have been haunted by the unknown every day for almost 45 years.

December 23rd, 1974, Rachel Trlica was a 17-year-old newlywed of six months, and a stepmother to her husband Tommy’s 2-year-old son. Rachel needed to finish up her Christmas shopping, so she asked her friend Lisa Renee Wilson to accompany her. Lisa Renee, who went by Renee, was 14 years old at the time. Renee was overjoyed because she had just been given a promise ring by her boyfriend Terry that morning. She agreed to go with Rachel under the condition that would be back in time to get dressed up to go to a party with Terry later that night. Renee asked Terry if he wanted to go, but he not-shockingly declined a trip to the mall with two girls at Christmas time, his younger sister Julie Ann Moseley, however; overheard the conversation and begged to go. Julie Ann, 9 years old at the time, probably just wanted to get out of the house and hang out with the older girls.

The three girls headed off in Rachel’s Oldsmobile shortly before noon and planned to return by 4:00 P.M. They made their first stop at an Army/Navy store to pick up some jeans. Their next stop was the Seminary South Shopping Center, the main mall in the area. Rachel drove around the parking lot until she found a spot on the upper level near Sears. The upper level was actually street level for the outdoor mall and the lower level is where you parked to pick up catalog orders. It wasn’t an actual parking deck.

Seminary South Shopping Center Parking Area

4:00 P.M. came and went and the girls didn’t return. Their families began to worry but it was Christmas time, and places were crowded, so they assumed they were probably just running a little late. When the girls still hadn’t returned by 6:00 P.M., Rachel’s mother, and brother were in the car driving to the mall. They hoped they would see them stuck on the side of the road from car trouble before they reached the mall, they didn’t. Once the pair reached the mall, they searched the parking areas for Rachel’s car. It didn’t take them long to discover it exactly as it was left in the upper deck near Sears. The car was locked and there were several wrapped Christmas gifts inside, as well as the jeans from the Army/Navy store. They immediately went inside the mall and began searching every store looking for the girls and having them paged. With no results, they called the police to report the girls missing. When police arrived they swept the mall and discovered several conflicting witness statements.

Everyone agreed the girls had made it inside the mall. Multiple witnesses confirmed seeing the girls by describing the writing “Sweet Honesty” on Renee’s shirt. The discrepancies began with witnesses stating they saw the girls in the parking lot with a man, some said he forced the girls in a van, others said he was wearing a security uniform and had the girls in a truck. It became hard to tell what witness statement was credible and who was “trying to help” and just creating a false memory or outright lying. Law enforcement began leaning towards the girls running away. This was a common theme in the ’70s and ’80s, to just assume it was a runaway. The age of Julie Ann definitely should have made them hesitate at the girls leaving of their own free will.

Some members of the families, desperate to find the girls, watched Rachel’s car for hours that night hoping someone would come back to the car. No one came back.

Because it was the ’70’s and law enforcement believed the girls were runaways, they released the car back to Tommy with minimal processing.

The morning of the 24th, Christmas Eve, Tommy walked out to his mailbox to find a letter formally addressed to him as “Thomas A. Trlica”. Rachel’s name was in the upper left corner. Inside the envelope, Tommy found a letter written in childish like handwriting that read as follows:

“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 Sears upper lot. Love, Rachel.”

Rachel didn’t know anyone in Houston, and was known for being pretty responsible and certainly wouldn’t run off on her family at Christmas. Tommy was also certain it wasn’t Rachel’s handwriting, and she never referred to him as “Thomas”, only “Tommy”.

There were other strange things about the letter, such as the postmark. The letter had a postmark, but it didn’t list a city. The postal service stamp on the envelope with had a zip code the postal service claimed came from Fort Worth, though some speculate it came from Weatherford, some 30 miles away. Tommy stated he received the letter that morning before the mail ran for the day, meaning it had to be hand delivered, and the envelope had a 10 cent stamp that had been canceled that day. More recently completed handwriting analysis, concluded the letter was written by a right-handed individual and Rachel was left-handed.

There was DNA collected from the letter that has not been a match to Rachel, or anyone in the system.

With little to nothing to go on, the investigation seemed to move to a sloth pace. The families became inpatient with law enforcement and decided to pool together their funds and hire a private investigator. The first investigator was a man named Jon Swaim. He discovered a tip leading to a bayou being searched for the girls remains, but nothing was ever recovered. Swaim died of a drug overdose in 1979 that officials ruled a suicide. Strangely, Swaim had legal documents instructing the destruction of all of his records upon the event of his death. So any information he may have uncovered about the girls, he took with him.

In the late ’90s another private investigator, Dan James, who claimed to have been researching the case for years on his own, reached out to Rachel’s brother Rusty Arnold. James told Rusty he found evidence that Rachel and Renee had left town because something fatal happened to Julie Ann. He went on to state he uncovered several sightings of the two girls together in multiple locations following the disappearance. He believed that Rachel was still alive, but Renee was then deceased. James was quoted in interviews stating. “someone was shrouding and manufacturing evidence to keep Rachel and Renee hidden and away from Fort Worth”. Still, nothing came of it.

In 2001 the case was officially reopened thanks to advances in DNA and new witnesses coming forward. Law enforcement believed the girls were deceased and had sent over 150 letters to coroners offices in the five surrounding states to see if they had any Jane Doe’s matching the girl’s descriptions and DNA samples. Still no luck. All of these years later and still no trace of the three girls.

Possible Sightings of the Girls

  • Witness at the scene saw three girls being forced into a van.
  • Witness at the scene saw three girls in a pickup truck with a man in a security uniform.
  • In 1981 a man came forward stating he saw a girl being forced into a van in the mall parking lot by a man. When he approached the man to check on the girl, he was told it was a family dispute and to stay out of it.
  • In 2001 a man came forward stating he saw all three girls in the parking lot around 11:30 pm inside the cab of a mall security guard truck. This man relayed this sighting to law enforcement in 1974, but it wasn’t followed up on. Investigators were able to follow-up and question the security guard 24 years later. Apparently, it wasn’t him.
  • Reported, but unconfirmed, sighting of Rachel in Fort Worth around Christmas in 1998.

It’s almost easier to accept the girls vanished without a trace than it is to try and swim through the sea of conflicting, confusing, and erroneous witness statements. The only forensic evidence, in this case, is the DNA sample from the letter Tommy received. With nothing to go on, we’re only left with theories and speculation.

Most Common Theories

  • Using Swaim’s theory of Rachel still being alive, one possibility is that something happened to Julie Ann so the girls panicked and ran. This doesn’t really explain why they would leave the car, and certainly doesn’t explain any of the strange things about the letter, or how two panicked teenagers could hide a body so well it hasn’t been found for almost 45 years. I don’t put much stock in this theory personally.
  • With up to 1/3 of human trafficking tips coming from Texas and the proximity to Mexico, human trafficking has been suggested as a possibility. In 1991 a man named James McAlphin was convicted of murdering an unidentified woman who was a possible trafficking victim/sex-worker. While McAlphin was in prison he claimed to have knowledge about the three missing girls in Fort Worth. He later began claiming the unidentified woman grew up with the girls, and he would trade information for money. He went on to say the girls were sold into slavery and that the youngest had died during childbirth. McAlphin was known for his wild stories and for being highly unreliable. Nothing he has stated has been confirmed.
  • James Debardeleben was a convicted rapist, kidnapper, and counterfeiter. He was gifted the moniker “The Mall Passer” for using his counterfeit bills in local malls. When Debardeleben was arrested for one of his counterfeit charges, investigators discovered audio recordings and photographs of his victims being raped, murdered, and tortured. It was later revealed that the photos in which he included himself, were victims he murdered, the photos of only the women were the ones he let go. The girls were not seen in any of the photographs, but that doesn’t mean they weren’t victims. Like William Bradford, he may have more victims than those he documented. Investigators said Debardeleden refused to break under interrogation and was quickly classified as a sexual sadist by psychiatrists. He was also known for impersonating authority figures and was living with his mother near the Seminary South Mall in 1974. He was sentenced to over 300 years for his crimes and died in prison from pneumonia in 2011, never letting a single secret slip.
  • Edward Harold Bell was another sketchy individual in the area at the time. Bell was a convicted murderer and admitted sex offender. Bell had severe psychological issues and was a known pathological liar, so he wasn’t taken seriously when he admitted to being responsible for the girls’ disappearance. His details don’t match the events of what happened.
  • Lloyd Welch is a convicted child molester currently serving his sentence. He’s now also awaiting trial for the 1975 murders of Katherine and Shelia Lyons. The girls left a mall in Maryland in March 1975 and never made it home. Their bodies have never been found. When new information came to light in 2014, Welch was identified as matching a composite sketch of a man the girls were seen talking to before their disappearance. When police began questioning people close to Welch, his cousin told investigators that he met Welch in Virginia in 1975 and helped him unload two foul smelling and red stained duffel bags from his car and threw them into a fire. He stated the bags weighed around 60lbs a piece. Welch worked for a traveling carnival in the ’70s that setup in mall parking lots. He was in the Austin, Texas area in December 1974. Welch also had a girlfriend that worked as a mall security guard at the time, she has since passed away. Welch was a known child molester, however, so would Rachel and Renee have been out of his preferential range?
  • There are theories about Rachel’s sister, Debra’s involvement but I don’t really see anything to back that up. She did have a relationship with Tommie, prior to Rachel, and she did also live with them at the time. Nothing else holds any weight though.

Forty-five years later and we are no closer to knowing the fates of the Fort Worth Three, than the day it happened. A shopping trip that was supposed to be a fun afternoon, turned so many lives upside down permanently. What theory do you feel the strongest about?

 

Sources

Trace Evidence Podcast

The Trail Went Cold Podcast

The Charley Project

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