Can a Journalist Solve a True Crime Ozarks Mystery?

Podcaster Anne Roderique-Jones returns to her Ozarks hometown to tell the story of the Springfield Three, a 30-year-old true crime mystery.

There’s no more fitting backdrop for a true crime mystery than the Ozark Mountains. Dense forests rest below limestone bluffs, punctuated by deep lakes, meandering streams and countless caves. This rugged topography has been described as hauntingly beautiful — a most apt portrayal.

The Ozarks and its people have a multifaceted personality, one that marries a quiet peacefulness with an eerie hush. There are hiding places, but also places to be hidden. There are the deeply religious and their megachurches intermingled with the anti-government. There are those who live below the poverty line along with the ultra wealthy, who reside in sprawling suburbia. And there’s a guarded spirit to this part of the country, with a rawness buried beneath the all-American surface.

This swath of land was widely unknown to most folks until the popular television show Ozark transported viewers to southern Missouri. The plot follows Jason Bateman’s character as he navigates the complicated juxtapositions of the Ozark Mountains and finds himself entangled in power, poverty and piety in a small town.

These woodlands were also my childhood playground. I grew up in the Ozarks and was 12 years old when the Springfield Three, as they came to be known, disappeared. I can still see the bright yellow flyers with Stacy McCall, Suzie Streeter and Sherrill Levitt’s faces that blanketed my hometown in 1992.

It was a time when I’d ride my bike around town with carefree abandon. My mother, who worked as a school cook, never locked our doors. At my father’s home in nearby Hollister, my siblings and I would get lost in the woods behind our house, knowing that we were to show up in time for dinner. I was in junior high, a cheerleader with good grades and the safety net of living in a small town. It was then that Springfield, Missouri — and what it meant to be from the Ozarks — was forever changed.

It was then that Springfield, Missouri — and what it meant to be from the Ozarks — was forever changed.

It all happened on June 7, 1992, in the early hours after graduation night for Stacy and Suzie. Like most graduation celebrations, the evening commenced with cake and pictures, followed by parties. And the girls had big plans: They were driving with friends to Branson the next day to hang out at a water park. It’s the sort of thing we did as kids in the Ozarks.

But that never happened. Stacy and Suzie, along with Suzie’s mother, Sherrill, seemingly vanished and have been missing ever since. To make one person disappear is difficult. But to make three people disappear is nearly impossible — until it isn’t. This year marks the 30th anniversary of the crime, and yet the early nineties feel like a lifetime ago.

1992 was the year Bill Clinton was elected 42nd president of the United States. It was the year of the Los Angeles riots, after the world witnessed the beating of Rodney King. The same year the Mall of America opened as the biggest in the world and Aladdin, Basic Instinct and The Bodyguard ruled the box office. That year, AT&T released a video telephone for a whopping $1,500. We didn’t have smartphones, and unless you were a Wall Street trader, you probably didn’t have a cell phone. Had we all had iPhones, I might not be telling this story.

Stacy McCall was 18 at the time of her disappearance. She worked at a gymnastics center and, thanks to her long dark blond hair, often modeled for the local bridal shop. Her mom would tell me she was fun and bubbly, and that they often called her “Spacey Stacy.” She was a good student, loved to read and had a close group of friends.

Suzanne “Suzie” Streeter was 19 at the time of her disappearance. She and Stacy were friends when they were younger but drifted apart in high school, like kids do. Suzie worked at the local movie theater and planned to become a cosmetologist. Her brother would later tell me she loved shopping at thrift stores. She looked like she’d be one of the cool girls at school, with light blond hair and a style people would want to imitate.

Sherrill Levitt was 47 at the time of her disappearance. She was a single mother who had moved to the Ozarks in 1981 to build a stable life for her family; she was particularly close with her daughter, Suzie. She worked as a cosmetologist and was known to have her clients’ coffee ready upon arrival. She was a hard worker and a devoted friend. Sherrill had recently purchased a bungalow at 1717 East Delmar Street that, within two months, would become a crime scene.

My entire family still lives in the Ozarks and I travel back often, but this time felt different. I was here to work and felt a duty to tell a story the people in my town would respect.

The Springfield Three is an ongoing mystery that haunts my hometown to this day. Those bright yellow missing posters that blanketed the town in 1992 can still be found hanging, now tattered and faded. In telling this story, I felt a responsibility to the families and to the community not to sensationalize the case or paint a caricature of the Ozarks. I was also well aware of what has come to be known as “missing white woman syndrome,” in which stories about missing women of color receive disproportionate media coverage. And then there’s our collective obsession with true crime, which experts say has become especially troubling in recent years. Telling this story would be complicated, and I would need to be careful of all the sensitivities surrounding it.

Although I return to the Ozarks regularly, I now live in New York City with my husband and dog, making a living as a journalist. But despite my work covering lifestyle topics and interviewing celebrities, this case has always been at the back of my mind. I decided a podcast would be the best platform for this story. In order to tell it the right way, I’d need to revisit my roots. So in January 2020, I flew with my producer, Ali, to Springfield for what was supposed to be the first of many trips. We had just four days to interview our first subjects and visit relevant places.

My entire family still lives in the Ozarks and I travel back often, but this time felt different. I was here to work and felt a duty to tell a story the people in my town would respect. One rainy day was spent in a local library interviewing Janis McCall, who graciously spent hours talking about her daughter, Stacy. Her words were raw and heartbreaking, and I held it together until I got back to my mom and grandma’s apartment, where I sank into a chair and dissolved into tears.

Another day, Ali and I drove an hour in a snowstorm to talk with law enforcement. We visited the woodlands, a notable Western store and a local watering hole to chat up locals who vividly remember the case. The degree of separation is small in these parts, and an old friend knew the current owners of 1717 East Delmar Street. Upon visiting, we discovered it looked eerily similar to the 1992 crime scene photos. At that time, I didn’t realize it would be my last visit to my hometown until we launched The Springfield Three: A Small-Town Disappearance in May 2021.

I never could have guessed we’d experience a global pandemic just two months into this project. Like so many others, we pivoted to researching and producing the podcast from our homes. I spent months recording under a fort of blankets to drown out the blaring sounds of the city. We taught ourselves — and folks in their seventies who were involved with the case — how to use Zoom. My small New York City apartment came to resemble a scene from CSI, taken over by poster boards plastered with images and information about potential suspects. All told, I would dedicate 24 months of my life (and counting) to telling the story of the Springfield Three.

In researching this case, I fell down a true crime rabbit hole. It wasn’t until I discovered this deluge of data that I began to understand the many, many details of this case. The hardest part? Determining what was actually accurate.

In researching this case, I fell down a true crime rabbit hole. Between Reddit subthreads and private Facebook groups, the information out there about a 30-year-old unsolved crime is overwhelming. It wasn’t until I discovered this deluge of data that I began to understand the many, many details of this case. The hardest part? Determining what was actually accurate.

Here’s what we do know: Stacy and Suzie had made plans to spend graduation night with a friend, but the friend’s house was crowded with family and at the very last minute — around 2:15 a.m. on June 7 — they decided to instead stay at Suzie’s house. Sherrill, meanwhile, had spent the evening post-graduation at home painting a dresser and spoke to a friend around 11 p.m. That was the last time any of these women would be seen or heard.

Later that morning, friends arrived at the Delmar home looking for Stacy and Suzie, who were supposed to go with them to the water park. The group had no idea they were walking into a crime scene.

Per the report police would later file, Stacy, Suzie and Sherrill’s purses were all neatly lined up in the living room. Sherrill’s wallet contained nearly $900 cash. Stacy’s migraine medication, which she always kept on hand, was in her handbag. Suzie and Sherrill’s cigarettes and lighters had been left behind. The cars were unsuspiciously parked in the driveway, with the keys inside the house.

The television had been left on, and a gold graduation gown was slung over a chair. It looked like someone had been sleeping in Sherrill’s bed, as the satiny green sheets were peeled back. In Suzie’s room, her new king-size waterbed was unmade. Stacy’s clothes — the clothes she’d worn the day before — were neatly folded in a pile, her flowered shorts on top of her sandals. Her jewelry was carefully tucked inside a pocket. It appeared the only items missing from her outfit were her yellow shirt and underwear.

There were two makeup-smeared washcloths in the hamper, which seemed to indicate that the girls had removed their makeup before going to bed. Two slats in the blinds were separated, as if someone was peeking out. Nothing in the home was amiss and, as so many locals will tell you, the women seemingly vanished into thin air.

Nothing in the home was amiss and, as so many locals will tell you, the women seemingly vanished into thin air.

Rumors swirl around small towns, and Springfield is no different. While working on this podcast, I spoke with numerous people involved in the case, from friends and family to detectives and journalists. Everyone seemed to have an opinion, but none of them were quite the same, and many leads ended up being dead ends.

Ask anyone in the Ozarks about the Springfield Three, and you’ll likely hear the parking lot theory. It was widely speculated that the women’s bodies were buried underneath a local hospital parking lot. But this proves nearly impossible as construction didn’t begin until 1993 (a year after the disappearance), and the bodies likely would have been discovered during that time. A similar theory suggests they’re buried beneath a palatial Western store. And it’s in one of these places that many people believe the women’s bodies lie to this day.

Then there’s the grave robbers theory. In February 1991, three young men were arrested after they broke into a mausoleum and stole gold fillings from a corpse’s mouth. Suzie happened to have dated one of the men around this time and gave police a statement about him. Could this be enough fuel to warrant her abduction — or was it just a compelling story fit for dramatic interpretation?

And I’d be remiss not to mention the infamous van. A witness claims that in the early hours on the night of the disappearance, she was sitting out on her front porch when she saw a mid-1960s to early 1970s–era Dodge panel van with a silvery greenish hue. She described a distressed young woman in the driver’s seat — who she would later say was Suzie Streeter — being told by an unidentified male to “Back out slowly and don’t do anything stupid.” The Springfield Police parked a replica of the van outside their station, but no solid leads surfaced.

It wasn’t until I dug deep into the case that I heard about the Girl Scout camp theory. Some background: Legend had it that a Girl Scout troop was murdered in a wooded area near Lake Springfield. Local teens would visit the site at night to scare themselves, mostly because there wasn’t a whole lot else to do in these parts. As it turns out, the property was actually the remains of a private hunting camp that was destroyed by a fire in the 1970s, leaving behind abandoned stone buildings, a fireplace and an in-ground swimming pool hidden deep in the Ozark woodlands. The demise of the Girl Scout troop may be an urban legend, but it certainly doesn’t make it any less scary when you’re out in the woods at night.

I discovered a haunting anonymous 2013 blog post that detailed a Texas teenager’s visit to the Ozarks in 1992. It stated that on the night of June 7, the then 15-year-old boy snuck out with a local friend, who took him to the Girl Scout camp. While they were far in the woods, a van appeared with three men and three women. The post states he witnessed the women being assaulted — possibly murdered — then loaded back into the vehicle. It goes on to say that the chain of events that happened that night has haunted him his entire life. His friend, meanwhile, took his own life not long after the incident, in November 1993.

Similar crimes in the area have sparked new interest — and leads — in the Springfield Three. In June 1985, just seven years prior, 20-year-old pageant queen Jackie Johns from nearby Nixa had gone missing. Her Camaro was found at a gas station with her bloodied clothing in the back seat, and her body was later discovered at Lake Springfield. Unfortunately DNA analysis wasn’t available at the time, and like the Springfield Three, the case went cold.

It wasn’t until 2010, 25 years after the slaying of Jackie Johns, that local businessman (and early suspect) Gerald Carnahan was found guilty for her murder after DNA evidence linked him to the crime. Some think he could also be the person responsible for the disappearance of the Springfield Three.

Others believe it’s former Army Ranger Robert Craig Cox, who is currently serving time in a Texas prison for aggravated robbery. In 1988, he was sentenced to death for the 1978 murder of 19-year-old Walt Disney World worker Sharon Zellers. The following year, his conviction was overturned in a rare ruling by the Florida Supreme Court on grounds of insufficient evidence. Cox had lived in Springfield and was rumored to have worked for Stacy’s father. In a rare 1996 interview, he told a reporter he knew the women were murdered and buried in Springfield and would never be found, adding that he would disclose what happened to them after his mother died. Cox is up for parole in 2025, and his mother is still alive. Will her passing be the catalyst for the closure we’re seeking?

I wrote this podcast because I wanted to tell the story of these women and give those involved a chance to tell their story, in their own words. After the debut, a lot of people came out of the woodwork to tell me their stories as well.

I moved away from the Ozarks years ago, but it will always be a part of me. Generations of family connect me to the area’s dense hollows and towering bluffs. The smell of damp leaves and a burning fire instantly transports me back to those woodlands. The feeling of jumping into a cool body of water reminds me of the lake I swam in every summer. The sound of a fiddle is like a childhood soundtrack. There are stories of the Ozarks that are never forgotten, and the Springfield Three is now one of them.

I wrote this podcast because I wanted to tell the story of these women and give those involved a chance to tell their story, in their own words. After the debut and more than half a million downloads, a lot of people came out of the woodwork to tell me their stories as well. This new information resulted in three bonus episodes that aired last fall.

Bartt Streeter, Sherrill’s son and Suzie’s brother, reached out to talk — something he’s been vehemently against in the past. He gave me insight into what his family was like, explaining how hard Sherrill worked as a single mother and how they all loved to dance. He also expressed his frustrations with the case and described what it was like to have his reputation besmirched while experiencing such a painful loss. Bartt’s life was changed instantly after his mother and sister went missing, but being named a suspect was something that would follow him forever.

A Missouri woman named Shellie contacted me through Instagram after hearing the podcast to tell me she was once picked up on the street by a man who tried to take her home. After watching a crime show, she recognized that man as Robert Craig Cox. She told me, “I will never forget those eyes — I never will.”

And there was Jennifer, who lived with Cox at the time of the crime, when she was in middle school. Her mother was engaged to him and provided the alibi for the day the Springfield Three went missing, attesting that the two of them were at church. Jennifer gave us a peek into Cox’s life during this bonus interview, explaining what he was like, what his habits were — and that he was not at church the day of the disappearance.

Our obsession with true crime is a strange phenomenon. I once devoured the genre, relishing any opportunity to play armchair detective. After all, isn’t it human nature to want to know whodunnit? But while writing this podcast, I had to take a break from this kind of heavy content and instead craved more lighthearted entertainment like Seinfeld and The Golden Girls.

During the all-consuming process of unpacking a hometown disappearance, I went from being a bystander to becoming part of the narrative. The Springfield Three are real women who might still be out there somewhere. Although these new developments haven’t yet helped us solve the case, each revelation leads us closer to an answer: What really happened to Stacy, Suzie and Sherrill?

Read this article as it appears in the magazine.

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