Det. Tracy Robinett, Osage Beach (Mo.) Department of Public Safety, has just come back from the evidence room.
“No, no, nothing exotic,” says the Columbia College- Lake of the Ozarks history major with a minor in criminal justice. Robinett says if he’s going to get a degree, it might as well be something fascinating. “It’s documents, videos — I’d say much of what we do is 90 to 95 percent boredom, five percent sheer terror.”
Robinett knows what he’s talking about. He and a grieving family recently experienced both in the disappearance of Brandi Mathews, a local woman.
Mathews, who had a young son, moved in rough circles. Her boyfriend in particular, Kelly Simino, was known to be involved in the drug culture and documents point to a volatile relationship.
Mathews got away. She moved to Lincoln County, Ark., and told friends and family in September 2006 she was moving back to live with her father in the Lake region and start life anew.
She never showed up.
Mathews’ mother, Deanna Roberts, tried to get an investigation going but was hampered by jurisdictional issues. Did she disappear in Arkansas or Missouri? And which county? Roberts also contacted people her daughter was known to associate with, tried to track her down using the Internet and went from one law enforcement agency to another.
In March 2008, Roberts approached the Osage Beach Department of Public Safety. Although the disappearance probably didn’t occur in their jurisdiction, the chief, David Severson, Det. Sgt. Terry Deffenbaugh, Robinett and fellow detective Kevin Friend agreed to open a missing person case.
Usually, Robinett says, the missing person “has just up and moved to Springfield or Europe or something and wants to be left alone for a while,” but two years with no family contact, especially with a worried sick mom, is unusual. Friend and Robinett began digging through the voluminous records.
In January 2009, Mathews was found. Or what was left of her, under a low-water bridge near Eldon, Mo. An anthropologist and a medical examiner testified that her skull had a hole in it consistent with that of a blow to the head, which could have been the cause of death. The official cause remains undetermined.
Robinett and Friend began scouring the thousands of documents, leads, photos and other records in earnest with the Missouri Attorney General's office, the Miller County Sheriff's Department and other agencies. Robinett estimates his unit put in 2,000 hours of research.
The process, Robinett says, was a lot like historical research: “You start digging, hitting the free, public databases — yellow pages, white pages, Facebook — then, once you’ve gone through those, you go through the private sources — police reports, reports from state agencies, financial records — and start narrowing it down.” Robinett also compares it with focusing a microscope.
The detectives knew that Simino was the person of last contact, which drew their attention and made him a person of interest, but they had no murder weapon, no confession, no truly solid evidence.
And Simino’s story was inconsistent. It just didn’t add up.
“When you start coming up with alternative explanations,” Robinett says, “you have to remember all the details. It’s like your mom said, if you tell a lie, then you have to tell a lie to cover that lie, then you have to remember all the lies.”
The cumulative lies caught up with Simino, and the case went to trial in November 2011, based in no small part on the detectives’ testimony. After five hours of deliberation, the jury found Simino guilty of second-degree murder. Sentencing is scheduled for January 2012; Robinett says no one can predict the penalty.
In early 2011, the three Osage Beach detectives were honored by Missouri Missing, an advocacy group for missing persons in the Show-Me State. “Your performance is inspiring to families of the missing and murdered and your dedication has not gone unnoticed,” the plaque reads.
Robinett is quick to credit Roberts, Mathews’ mother, as the driving force behind the investigation and conviction.
“She got the ball rolling, kept pushing, wouldn’t take no for an answer. That’s important in a missing person case.” Someone has to be passionate to keep the often arduous process alive, he says. He adds that he believes Roberts came to terms with the possibility of her daughter’s death long before the trial.
But he adds that a conviction doesn’t bring closure.
“When your kid goes missing and you don’t hear anything for two years then find nothing but remains — I don’t know you ever get closure. It’s every parent’s worst nightmare.”
Robinett is himself the father of four.
“Osage Beach is a small town,” he says, and he’s lived in the area for his entire life. “I have never seen anything like this before. I hope I never do again.”