No, they didn't run off together Missing: A prominent businessman and a young woman vanished one night in 1968. Now, their car has been found, but questions remain.

June 09, 1996|By Dail Willis and Ivan Penn | Dail Willis and Ivan Penn,SUN STAFF

SEAFORD, Del. -- Johnny Stewart had every reason to stick around. 1968 looked like a good year: His custodial business was booming, his activism was helping break racial barriers, he had a solid marriage, and he was liked and respected within the black community of this rural town.

After a 28-year hiatus, the investigation was reactivated.

'A fatal vehicle accident'

Dr. Judith Tobin of the state medical examiner's office concluded after studying the 100 or so bones from the car that they probably came from two people, a man and a woman. Items found in the car support that conclusion: two pairs of glasses, one man's and one woman's, and one pair of sunglasses. Investigators also found a wallet, a 1967 Wilmington Trust calendar, a bag of keys and, in the trunk, three pairs of shoes.

"At this point, it appears to be a fatal vehicle accident," says Mark Albert, the Delaware State Police investigator now assigned to the case. "There's no indication of any foul play."

Albert says it's likely that after Stewart and Thomas left the Pine Forest Tavern, they drove west on Route 20, then north at Route 13 toward the bridge.

What happened next no one will ever know for sure. Albert and others believe Stewart's car struck the bridge abutment and then slid into the Nanticoke from the embankment. The car's right front fender shows damage consistent with such an accident, investigators say.

"That's all speculation," Albert says. "There's no way to tell exactly what they hit."

Both families have held small memorial services, burying bones they believe to be Stewart's and Thomas', and the ritual has brought a measure of peace.

"Now I know where I can put flowers," says Stewart's widow.

Says Myrtle Thomas: "It was a relief to some degree." But there is also anger, particularly on her part.

"I don't think there was an investigation," she says. "When my mother called it in [in 1968], they said there was nothing they could do. That was the last contact we had with the police until my mother called them and said, 'I think there are two bodies in that car.'

"No one ever contacted the family. How can you do an investigation if you don't contact the key players?"

Tiley says he had no indication at the time that it was anything but two people leaving town together.

"For the time and the ages of the people involved, they probably did as much as expected," Albert says of the original investigation.

"There are just going to be some things we are never going to know."

Pub Date: 6/09/96

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