2 decades later, families of 3 missing girls still searching for answers
By Diana Washington Valdez / El Paso Times
Posted: 02/15/2010 12:00:00 AM MST
A cold case detective in New Mexico is looking into the disappearance of Marjorie Knox, a 14-year-old who vanished in 1987.
Mike Ulsh, an investigator with the Doña Ana County Sheriff's Department in Las Cruces, met earlier this month with El Paso detectives to review their file on the missing girl.
Although Knox lived in Chaparral, N.M., El Paso police long suspected she may have met with danger while in El Paso. They also believed convicted serial killer David Leonard Wood may have possessed helpful information.
"We are interested in talking to anyone who may have information about Marjorie's disappearance, including Wood," Ulsh said. "We are willing to do anything we can to resolve the case."
Knox was the first in a string of young women who disappeared in 1987, and who were linked to Wood or to his murdered victims.
Melissa Alaniz, 13, and Cheryl Lynn Vasquez-Dismukes, 19, who lived in Northeast El Paso, also vanished in 1987. Relatives said they never saw or heard from the two young missing women again.
El Paso Police Chief Greg Allen said the missing girls are part of the Police Department's cold cases. Since then, except for their families, they have been all but forgotten.
Knox was last seen on Feb. 14, 1987, a Sunday, after attending a Valentine's Day party at Veterans Park in the Northeast. The park has sports fields, a library, gym, swimming pool and recreation center.
Witnesses said then that they saw a man who resembled Wood pull up in a small truck at the park and talk to Knox. The trail went cold after that.
Police also said someone saw Knox walking at 3 a.m. on Chaparral Street in Chaparral, N.M., a road that is pitch black at that hour.
If Wood knows anything, he has never revealed it to authorities.
The state paroled him on Jan. 15, 1987, after he served seven years of two concurrent 20-year sentences for rape. His victims were girls of 13 and 19. Both crimes occurred in Northeast El Paso.
Grand jurors later indicted him in the killings of six young women in 1987. Their bodies were buried in shallow graves in the Northeast desert.
Wood, 52, denied killing anyone. He also denied being in Chaparral.
Authorities said his victims were Dawn Smith, 14; Angelica Frausto, 17; Karen Baker, 20; Rosa Maria "Janet" Casio, 24; Desiree Wheatley, 15; and Ivy Susanna Williams, 23.
Ricardo Segovia, a former Doña Ana County sheriff's investigator, said then investigators were working on the assumption that Knox may have met the same end as the others.
Segovia, who is now a federal officer, said Wood had lived in Chaparral "off and on." Other residents in the rural community said Wood stayed with a father and his son until they threw him out.
"He didn't live close (to Knox), but he was seen with her on several occasions," Segovia said.
According to police reports, the 14-year-old Smith also lived in Chaparral for a short time with a man and a woman who socialized with Wood.
Wheatley lived in Chaparral before her family moved to El Paso. She rode a Gadsden district school bus with Knox.
Before she vanished, Knox was living with her family on Byrum Street in Chaparral. She was 5 feet 3 inches tall, weighed 115 pounds, had brown eyes and brown hair.
Her father, James Knox, who died two years ago, circulated a flier offering a $500 reward. The flier said she may have bleached her hair blond and may have been pregnant.
The last thing the Knox family knew was that Marjorie had gone to a friend's house in Chaparral.
Friends and relatives described Knox as a playful and active girl who liked horses and sports.
"She always liked swinging in trees when she was smaller," her father once said.
At least one of her close friends in Chaparral believes she is still alive. But police need proof before they can rule out an accident or foul play, and be able to close out the case.
Ideally, Ulsh said, police try to obtain a DNA sample from close relatives of the missing persons. The sample can be used to match it to someone who later turns up alive; it also can be used to match to unidentified or unclaimed remains.
Ulsh said Knox was removed from the National Crime Information Center database in 1994, but he does not know why. NCIC is a 24-hour criminal justice index available to law enforcement. It includes a list of about 100,000 missing persons.
"Sometimes people are removed because they reach the age of majority (adulthood) and are found and indicate that they do not want to come forward," Ulsh said. "We did not find any documentation to indicate why this happened in her case. As far as we're concerned, we have not accounted for Marjorie."
Knox would have turned 21 years old in 1994.
Alicia Alaniz, Melissa Alaniz's mother, said she has wondered every single day what became of her daughter.
"I've called the El Paso police to ask about the status of the investigation, but no one calls me back," she said. "The National Center for Missing and Exploited Children calls me from time to time to ask about Melissa. The center recently provided me with an age-progression picture of her."
The Texas Department of Public Safety Missing Persons Clearinghouse also carries Melissa Alaniz on its list, along with her picture.
She was wearing a black Iron Maiden T-shirt, jeans and sneakers the day she left her house on March 7, 1987, to play video games at a neighborhood convenience store off Rushing. She was 5 feet 2 inches tall, weighed 105 pounds, and had brown eyes and brown hair.
Two weeks before -- only about a week after Knox was reported missing -- Alaniz had run away after a family argument. She returned home after two days.
Alicia Alaniz pulled out several keepsakes, including a colorful hand-written thank-you card from Melissa. A remodeling project had given her a spacious room.
"I'm just hoping that someone out there who knows something will come forward," Alicia Alaniz said.
The Alaniz family lived near Desiree Wheatley's home on Tiber, and both Alicia Alaniz and Wheatley's mom, Marcia Fulton, worked at Rockwell Industries. James Knox, Marjorie's father, also worked for Rockwell.
Wheatley and Alaniz attended H.E. Charles Middle School in Northeast El Paso, and had friends in common. A police report said they once argued.
Wood lived in the same neighborhood near both girls.
Jessica Leeah Srader, a former school chum of Melissa's, said kids from the neighborhood often met at the Alaniz house to play and socialize.
"We used to dress up like rock stars -- I think we were really into Heart at the time -- we played 'Never' all the time," said Srader, 38, now an assistant state attorney general in Alaska. "We would try to dress like Ann and Nancy Wilson. We would put on some spandex, lots of makeup and tease up our hair. We used lots of Aqua Net."
Michelle "Missie" Gall, 38, another former El Pasoan who knew Alaniz, said the girl's disappearance shocked and frightened everyone.
"I remember her mother and brother going up and down the block looking for her," Gall said. "She was a happy-go-lucky girl. I still don't have a clue as far as what happened to her. I would like to think that maybe she ran away and is alive somewhere today."
Paul Strelzin, former principal of H.E. Charles Middle School, said campus staff had to chase Wood away several times.
"Wood would be parked in a van in a school no-parking zone," Strelzin said. "One of the cheerleaders told us she saw him hanging out near the campus many times, and that Wood had gotten in trouble before with her sister."
Retired detective John Guerrero, who worked on the police task force that investigated the 1987 murders and disappearances, said Wood used a van belonging to someone else to take pictures of young girls at the school.
Back then, Wood also owned a red Harley-Davidson motorcycle and drove a small, beige Nissan truck. He claimed that people probably confused him with someone else who looked like him and had similar vehicles.
Guerrero said Wood was the main police suspect in the three unsolved disappearances.
After Wood's arrest in October 1987, the series of disappearances and murders of young women in Northeast El Paso came to a halt.
He appealed his 1993 death sentence for the capital murder conviction, alleging in court documents that he is mentally retarded. The U.S. Supreme Court in 2002 outlawed executions of mentally retarded convicts.
Vasquez-Dismukes, 19, vanished June 28, 1987, after buying cigarettes for a friend at a Circle K store at McCombs and Sarah Anne. She was seen talking to Wood that day in the store parking lot.
She was 5 feet 4 inches tall, weighed 105 pounds and had blondish hair. She was wearing new blue jeans, a white T-shirt with cartoon characters on it and high-top tennis shoes.
She had worked at a fast-food restaurant on Dyer Street and at the Matador Plastics factory, also in Northeast El Paso. Friends said men found her attractive and charming.
A manager at the eatery saw Wood talk to Vasquez-Dismukes once and warned her to stay away from him.
Her brother, Pete Vasquez, said his family would like to end the anguish and find out what happened to her. Not knowing has taken a toll on their mother and the other siblings.
"We loved Cheryl very much," he said.
The Vasquez family prefers not to discuss Cheryl's short marriage by proxy to Robert Dismukes. Dismukes' mother, Erika Dismukes, and sister, Mona Dismukes, defend Wood to this day.
Robert Dismukes was in prison for burglary and attempted murder of a woman. In 1982, when he was 18, Dismukes was part of a large group arrested in more than 30 break-ins in Northeast El Paso.
Relatives of Vasquez-Dismukes said they did not know why Cheryl married Robert Dismukes. One of the speculations was that he may have sought her help to prevent U.S. authorities from deporting him. She disappeared a week after the proxy marriage.
Erika Dismukes said people have seen Cheryl alive but has not offered any proof. She also said her son lives and works as a trucker in Germany.
Diana Washington Valdez may be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org; 546-6140.