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Jesse Howell

Real Name: Jesse Lee Howell
Nicknames: Jess
Location: Ocala, Florida
Date: March 23, 1997

Case[]

Details: Jesse Howell and Wendy Von Huben longed for a life beyond the small town where they lived. That romantic notion led the young lovers to a fateful decision: they were going to leave Illinois and run away together. It was a decision that would become more dangerous and deadly than they could have ever foreseen.
Wendy grew up near the small farming town of Kankakee, Illinois. In 1995, her family moved to the even smaller community of Woodstock, 100 miles to the north. She did not adjust well to the move. She had trouble in her new school and was restless. According to her mother, Laura, Wendy wanted to be older and become an adult, but she also wanted to have fun.
In December 1996, Wendy fell in love with nineteen-year-old Jesse. He was already on his own and some saw him as a drifter. He preferred to think of himself as a “romantic”. According to his mother, Rebecca, he “wanted to be who he wanted be” but he could not figure out who that was. He left their home and struck out on his own, thinking that he could make it all by himself and take care of himself.
On February 23, 1997, just days after her sixteenth birthday, Wendy told her parents that she was spending the night with a friend. But secretly she had other plans with Jesse. The following day, when she did not return home as scheduled, her family waited a few hours, but she never called to tell them where she was. They then tried to call her friend, only to discover that the phone number she had given them did not belong to any of her friends. They knew something was wrong, so they called the police and filed a missing persons report. They later learned from her school that she had skipped classes in the week prior to her disappearance.
The police determined that Wendy and Jesse left Illinois in a car with two other teenagers. They slept in it and traveled to different states. But just a few days after arriving in the area of Bradenton, Florida, the young couple’s romantic plans for a new life started to unravel. The two couples started to get on each other’s nerves. On March 7, they pulled into a truck stop and got out. The other couple decided that they had had enough of Wendy and Jesse. They got back into the car and drove off, leaving Wendy and Jesse behind. They were nearly 1,500 miles from home, with little money and no transportation. Nevertheless, they were able to drop from sight. Police lost their trail.
A month later, on March 18, Wendy’s father, William, was at work when he received a phone call from a homeless shelter in Bradenton. The caller said that he worked with a group that dealt with runaway children. He said that he had “found something that [William] had lost”. He said that Wendy and Jesse had been living under a bridge near Dade City when they were found by the group. Wendy spoke to William on the phone. She was crying and said that she wanted to come home. She did not like living on the streets. He sent her down $200 to use for the bus ride home. He was relieved that they would soon be coming home.
A few days later on March 21, Jesse called his parents from a Flying J Truck Stop in Dade City, north of Bradenton. He said that he and Wendy were going to visit his grandmother in North Carolina, and then head home. Rebecca tried to press him for more information. However, he said that he had to go because he was going to miss his ride. He told her not to worry and that he would be fine. That was the last time she ever spoke to him. Wendy and Jesse picked up the money wired to them by her parents. However, they did not board a bus for the ride home to Illinois.
Forty-eight hours later on March 23, a train engineer spotted a body in the bushes near the railroad tracks in Belleview, eighty miles north of Dade City, Florida. It was Jesse’s. Rebecca felt that their lives had fallen apart; all of their plans for him and their family were suddenly changed. And there was nothing they could say or do to change it back to the way it was before. He had been killed by blunt trauma to the head. There was still money in his pocket and a half-smoked cigarette on the ground. He was struck from behind and apparently had no idea what was happening. There was no struggle at the scene; that, paired with the fact that there was a clear path showing that his body was dragged through the grass indicated to police that it was a homicide.
The crime lab was able to locate a drop of blood on the cuff of Jesse’s jacket that did not belong to him. There are indicators that it could be Wendy’s blood. Exhaustive land and air searches for her turned up nothing. She had disappeared without a trace. Curiously, the only footprints at the crime scene are thought by police to be Jesse’s. There was no sign of her at all. Laura noted that Wendy and Jesse were always together; she believes that Wendy witnessed the murder. If Wendy was there, had she witnessed Jesse’s murder? And where had she gone?
In the days that followed, the Von Hubens and police distributed thousands of flyers with Wendy’s picture. There were numerous sightings, but most turned out to be inconclusive and unconfirmed. Finally, an intriguing tip emerged from two homeless men near Jacksonville. In late March, they had seen a person resembling Wendy come through town with a man named Bob. He has since been identified as Bobby Ray Taylor, a railroad rider. The men had known Bob for some time and indicated that he was very unique because he has one leg, and a prosthesis for the other one. He also has teardrops tattooed under one eye. He is only wanted for questioning.
More than two months passed. Then, on the evening of June 4, 1997, the phone rang at the home of Wendy’s parents. When Laura answered, the caller immediately hung up. A few minutes later, the phone rang again. Laura ran back and answered it. They said it was a collect call and asked if she would accept the charges. They then told the caller to identify herself. She said: “Mom, it’s me! It’s me, Wendy!” and then she hung up.
Laura went next door to call the police. At 8pm, the Von Huben’s phone rang again. William answered; the caller said, “Hi Dad,” She said she was calling from Kankakee, the town where Wendy and her family had lived until eighteen months earlier. He asked where she was in Kankakee, and she said she did not know. He asked where she was calling from, and she said she was at a Phillips 66 station. He asked if there was a phone number on the phone, and she said no. Everything she said was a “yes or no”, single-word answer. She then said she had to go and hung up. The conversation was so short, William could not be sure that the girl on the phone was Wendy. He hoped that it was her, but he just could not be sure.
Det. Sgt. Kurt Rosenquist of the Woodstock Police Department went to Kankakee and checked all of the pay phones at the Phillips 66 stations, looking for one that did not have a phone number on it. He found one payphone on Indiana St. that did not have the phone number posted in the normal space. He assumed that this was where the call was made from. He obtained the surveillance tape from that gas station. It showed a teenage girl matching Wendy’s description. Police estimate that the video was recorded within minutes of the call to the Von Hubens.
When Laura saw the tape, she was certain that the girl was Wendy. She said although she had put on weight, she could tell that it was her. She was certain based on her body language, the way her hair was done, the way she put her hands in her pockets, and the way she walks. Although Laura was absolutely positive the girl was Wendy, William was only 85% positive. He said that there were some frames that he looked at and thought she was Wendy, but there were others where he could not say if it was her or not.
Then, another complication: police subpoenaed phone records and later traced the phone call to a different gas station just two miles away. At that station, there was a flyer posted with the Von Huben’s home phone number. Police and her family hope that Wendy made the call. However, they suspect that someone may have seen the phone number on the flyer and called her parents to make a very sick joke.
What happened to Wendy? Other than the video, authorities have few clues. Yet, they are hopeful that she is still out there somewhere, and with her, the secret to solving Jesse’s murder. Police and her family hope that she is still alive.
Suspects: Some local drifters told police that Wendy was travelling with a one-legged railroad car rider known as "Bob", who has since been identified as Bobby Ray Taylor. Authorities cannot confirm that Bobby and Wendy are together, or if the witnesses are mistaken, as some believe that Wendy is dead and was killed by the same person who killed Jesse. They have noted that Taylor is not considered a suspect in the case; he is only wanted for questioning.
Extra Notes:

  • This case first aired on the April 17, 1998 episode.
  • It was excluded from the FilmRise release of the Robert Stack episodes.
  • It was also documented on Motives & Murders: Cracking the Case.

Angel Resendiz

Results: Solved. In April 1998, police located Bobby Ray Taylor. They questioned him at length about Wendy’s whereabouts. He admitted to having seen her before, but could not recall any details. He also denied knowing anything about Jesse’s murder. Investigators determined that he was not involved in this case.
In July 1999, detectives looked into the possibility that thirty-nine-year-old serial killer Angel Resendiz, also known as "The Railroad Killer", was involved in Wendy and Jesse's cases. In early 2000, after being contacted by detectives, he confessed to killing the couple. He said that he killed them because he believed that they were "anti-Christians" who believed in witchraft. He claimed that he met them at a switching station near Jacksonville. They caught a ride with him in a grain car in order to find work picking oranges.
When the train stopped at a switching station, Resendiz and Jesse got out. He then struck Jesse over the head with a railroad car air brake coupling. After that, he got back in the grain car. Eight hours later and several miles away, he ordered Wendy out, raped her, strangled her, and then buried her. The identity of the murder weapon in Jesse's case had never been released to the public. He then gave authorities directions to where he had buried Wendy. On July 15, a search team following his directions found her remains in a shallow grave in Oxford; they were wrapped in a blanket and camouflage jacket. The grave was fifteen miles south of the spot where Jesse was found. Jewelry found on the remains belonged to her; DNA testing confirmed her identity.
In exchange for his confession and information that led to Wendy's recovery, Resendiz was granted immunity from prosecution in her and Jesse's cases. Resendiz confessed to twenty murders and was convicted of the murder of Houston doctor Claudia Benton; he was sentenced to death in that case. Police were able to verify at least fifteen of the murders, dating back to 1986. Fingerprints and DNA evidence connected him to some of these murders. He was executed in June 2006. He and his crimes were documented on shows such as The FBI Files.
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