IT WAS NOT called a funeral, and there was no coffin, no grave. But the mourners still came, filling Magnolia’s Central Baptist Church on an unseasonably cool day in July 2014. They walked down the blue carpeted aisles, arranging themselves on long wooden pews. And at the cemetery east of town, a marker was placed for Mary “Bobo” Shinn beside her parents’ headstones. It was all part of a “memorial” to the young woman who had vanished 36 years earlier.
Among those in attendance were Bobo’s four siblings and their families. They had arranged the service, deciding it was time for some sort of closure where their sister was concerned. Much had changed in the intervening years. They’d gone their own ways, moving from Magnolia to larger places like Texarkana and Dallas. And both of their parents had passed away—the mother who’d been the first to go looking for Bobo after she didn’t return home from a meeting with an unknown man, and the father who’d deployed the family’s considerable financial resources in a quest for information that only seemed to lead to frustration.
The truth was that no one knew exactly what had happened to her, not even Columbia County Sheriff Mike Loe, who had spent much of his career trying to find out. He was there at the service, still looking the part of a law enforcement officer. But his neatly trimmed hair showed a few strands of gray, and his square build signs of softening.
In a way, the memorial service extended beyond the church. It became an occasion for the entire town to revisit its memories of the crime, and especially of Bobo herself. There were recollections of her as a playful child, a Girl Scout, a young woman and an artist. Letters came in to the Banner-News. One recalled a difficult time in the past when the white and black schools had integrated. The writer, a black woman, remembered her trepidation at coming to the new school, and how Bobo’s friendliness set an example that other students followed, helping smooth the transition.
As the memorial service progressed, the congregation sang “It is Well With My Soul.” A video montage played. Former Miss Arkansas Beth Anne Rankin sang. Jon Stubblefield, the church’s pastor when Bobo disappeared, spoke. “We may not know in this lifetime what happened to Bobo,” MagnoliaReporter.com quoted him as saying, “but we are assured in scripture there is nothing hidden but what will be revealed.”
THURSDAY, JULY 20, 1978 WAS, like most July days in south Arkansas, hot. Temperatures would approach 100 degrees in the afternoon. That morning, Bobo, a lovely and vibrant brunette, tanned from tennis and swimming, emerged from her parents’ comfortable but unpretentious home on a wooded lot near the local college. She went for a walk, then she taught an art class at her studio.
Then 25 years old, Bobo had been born and raised in Magnolia. Her father was a farm kid from just north of town, who’d graduated from the nearby college, Magnolia A&M (now Southern Arkansas University), and gone on to work as a real estate developer, building motels across the region. Her mother loved the theater. Bobo’s passion was for studio art. She received a degree in it from SAU in 1976, and she soon had her own small studio where she painted and gave lessons. But she also dabbled in her father’s business of real estate and had purchased a small home to fix up and sell, doing much of the work with her own hands.
Around 11 a.m. that day, Bobo was still at the studio when the phone rang. She picked it up and heard the voice of her new friend Anita asking if she wanted to come over. The two had met through their boyfriends and enjoyed spending time together after Anita got out of morning classes at the college. They could often be found poolside at the new motel Bobo’s father had built on Main Street east of the courthouse. But today, Bobo said she was waiting for a call from a man who was interested in the house she was trying to flip and for which she’d taken out an ad in the Banner-News.
Bobo told Anita she would call back after talking to the man. It was only about five minutes later when Anita’s phone rang. On the other end, Bobo said she’d spoken to the prospect. He’d said he had a house out of town he might like to trade. They were going to meet that afternoon. Bobo said she’d try to come over after they were finished.
“Come looking for me if I’m not back this afternoon,” she added, half-jokingly, before hanging up.
When she did not return home as supper time neared, her mother worried. She contacted Bobo’s friends, but unfortunately no one knew the name of the man Bobo had gone to meet. All they knew was what Bobo had said: The man’s car was being worked on at the Pontiac dealership on Main Street and they were going to meet at the E-Z Mart just across from there. Mrs. Shinn went to the dealership, arriving as it was about to close for the night. It didn’t have any cars in the shop that might belong to the unknown man. But an employee did recall seeing a car that looked like Bobo’s pick up a man in his 20’s at the E-Z Mart around noon.
The employee then got in his car and left for home. As he passed Smitty’s, a local grocery store along Main, something caught his eye. It was Bobo’s car, a blue 1976 Buick, sitting empty in the parking lot. He pulled in and looked around. Bobo was nowhere to be found. He got back in his car and went to find Mrs. Shinn. When he told her what he’d seen, she called the police.
Inside the Buick were the keys, Bobo’s purse, a copy of the novel The Thorn Birds and a pair of sunglasses. Her white tennis shoes were shoved beneath the pedals, as if she’d been driving with them off. Missing was an appointment book that Bobo carried around with her. Police surmised it may have been taken because it held information about the man she was meeting. Exterior analysis found grass and seed fragments on the lower body of the car, suggesting it may have been driven through a field. Strands of hair and some partial fingerprints were also found, but were thought to belong to Bobo.
Over the following days, investigators fanned out all across the town in search of clues. They learned that Smitty’s employees had noticed Bobo’s car sitting in the parking lot around 1:30 p.m. At the E-Z Mart, they found someone who remembered a man with dark hair, a white shirt and jeans coming in to get change for the pay phone around 11 a.m.—about the same time Bobo had spoken with her real estate prospect.
At the home Bobo was trying to sell, a carpenter working across the street said he’d seen a woman matching Bobo’s description arriving around 11:30 a.m. the day she disappeared. A man had arrived soon after in another car, a dark green Pontiac. The two went in the house, then came out, got in their cars and left going in the same direction. The man was about six feet tall, in his mid-to-late-20s, with brown hair, a mustache, beard and ball cap.
Another lead came from the county tax assessor, Henry Erwin. After coming across a photo of Bobo’s car in the newspaper, he told police he’d been baling hay on his land around noon on the day Bobo vanished, when the Buick had passed slowly along the highway. Inside, a man and woman appeared to be struggling as the car weaved.
Taking the various witnesses as credible, investigators had a rough timeline. At 11 a.m., Bobo had spoken with her prospect on the phone.
At 11:30 a.m., the two had looked at Bobo’s house. About noon, they had been seen leaving town in Bobo’s car, possibly struggling. Around 1:30 p.m., Bobo’s car was abandoned in Smitty’s parking lot. There was an hour-and-a-half gap between the sighting of Bobo’s car leaving town and when it was left at Smitty’s. The case turned on figuring out what happened in that hour and a half.
A FEW DAYS AFTER Bobo had disappeared, a 26-year-old uniformed state trooper named Mike Loe sat in a cafe in the nearby town of Hamburg, a cup of coffee on the table, when his supervisor appeared and showed him a newspaper. Bobo’s face looked out from the front page. It was a face Loe knew. He had grown up near Magnolia and attended SAU in the early 1970s—that’s where he knew Bobo from. They’d had a history class together and were casual acquaintances. As he read the story that day in the coffee shop, he had no way of knowing the investigation would eventually be his own.
In May 1979, a little under a year later, the state police’s lead investigator in Magnolia, Russell Welch, was transferred to another county and Loe was sent to replace him. Top priority in the jurisdiction was the same as it had been since the previous July: Find Bobo Shinn.
The case seemed to hold the town, and especially the investigators, in a time warp. Almost a year along, police had made little real progress, though not for lack of effort. A composite drawing relying heavily on the carpenter’s testimony gave investigators something to focus on for a while. They interviewed numerous men resembling the description he’d given, but it led to no breaks. Investigators began to suspect the carpenter had described a man who lived a couple of houses down but was not the man Bobo had met with.
As Loe took over the investigation, he shared this skepticism of the carpenter’s testimony and the resulting composite sketch, which had by then absorbed considerable resources. The truth was, though the pressure to solve the disappearance remained white-hot, the case itself had already begun to cool. As more months and finally years passed with no solution, the intensity of the investigation declined.
Occasional leads still came in, of course. In the 1980s, there was hope when a Shreveport woman confessed to being involved—and again when serial killer Henry Lee Lucas claimed responsibility. But both possibilities were eventually deemed false.
In 1998, Loe returned to being a uniformed state trooper after a disagreement with a superior. But even as his official focus shifted away from the Shinn case, he continued to run down leads in his off time. In 2002 and 2004, he dug up sites, to no avail, which tips and theories had led him to. In 2010, he retired from the state police. The following year, he won election to county sheriff and once again had the case as part of his official duties. He chased new leads to Texas, to Florida and, in 2014, to north Arkansas, but nothing ever came of them.
SHERIFF LOE’S OFFICE off Arkansas 371 is large. On the walls, there are photos of him with three different governors. With Frank White, he’s being named state trooper of the year. With Bill Clinton, he’s receiving his 20-year certificate. There are also photos of his family and mementos of his hobbies—hunting, fishing and Harley Davidson motorcycles. Together, they form the composite of a successful career and life, one that has moved steadily along like a river. But other items tell a different story, of backwaters that swirl, catching and holding what falls into their orbit.
A box of evidence from the Bobo Shinn case sits near the sheriff’s desk, as if the disappearance had taken place last week and not 37 years before. Leaning against a corner wall is a framed work of art, a painting by Bobo, presented to Loe by the Shinn family in appreciation for his work on the case. It’s an abstract piece—with green a prominent color. The fluid shapes are capable of eliciting wildly different interpretations from one person to the next. But to Loe, the meaning is clear. He sees the faces of two people eyeing each other, one vaguely malevolent, the other frightened—the relationship between predator and prey. Thirty-six years have practically hardwired the case into his brain.
“It’s stayed with me every day,” he says, struggling a bit to put into words just why. It was the kind of crime Magnolia had not really seen before, he says, involving families and people he knew.
“The community deserves an answer,” he adds. “The family deserves an answer. So I made it my mission to solve it. It’s the only case I’ve ever gotten so personally involved with, and the only one I ever will. Because it takes a toll on you.”
The toll comes in the form of anxiety and stress. It takes a certain amount of courage to endure that and not give up.
“You can’t win a ball game sitting at the house,” Loe says. “You have to get on the field and play.”
One problem with the case, he says, is that Bobo was portrayed in early media reports as being a real estate agent. As a result, he was frequently contacted by jurisdictions across the U.S. whenever there was a real-estate-related murder or disappearance. But Bobo was not truly a real estate agent. And Loe now believes resources may have been spent, and opportunities lost, following the wrong kind of leads.
So in January 2015, he decided to reboot the entire investigation, to start over from scratch. Was he still going to use the original information? Some of it, say, the contents of the car, sure. Others of it, say, the carpenter’s testimony, not so much. If nothing else, it would turn the boxes and cabinets that constitute the official file into a thorough and well-documented record of everything for posterity. He began re-interviewing the surviving key witnesses, getting them on video. He forwarded information to the FBI’s criminal profiling experts. It may be a swing for the fences in the ninth inning, for Loe says he is nearing retirement. But he seems hopeful. He’s cagey with details but claims to have a new line on the case that he can’t discuss.
As he sits in his office, revisiting this case that has spanned almost his entire 40-year career, Loe adds, “I guess I’m the last one standing that’s still pushing this thing.”
But even after all these years, that’s not quite the case.
IN OCTOBER 1979, over a year after Bobo’s disappearance, a phone rang in the DeSoto, Texas, office of William Dear, private investigator. It was hardly a remarkable occurrence. Dear had, after all, achieved a certain amount of fame. Recently, he had returned the 16-year-old runaway James Dallas Egbert III to his family. The missing person case generated a great deal of media coverage (eventually to include a novel and television movie) thanks in part to Egbert’s fascination with the role-playing game Dungeons and Dragons, which some blamed for his troubled mental state. But the phone call was not about the Egbert case. On the other end of the line was Gresham Shinn, Bobo’s father, asking Dear to come find his daughter.
At the time, the family still clung to hope that Bobo was alive. They had offered increasing rewards for information and brought in two other private investigators who hadn’t worked out. One problem was that the private and police investigators seemed to clash more than cooperate. “They just couldn’t work together, even from the very first,” Mrs. Shinn said in a September 1986 Associated Press article. “They just were so afraid that somebody else was going to get the credit; they wouldn’t tell each other things.”
Though Dear was skeptical that Bobo was still alive (in more than a year, there had been no demand for ransom), he came to Magnolia and then agreed to take the case. He went right to work, offering money for information and interviewing whoever would talk. Like the police, he arrived at the theory that Bobo’s real estate prospect had murdered her and hidden the body somewhere. The countryside around Magnolia was pockmarked with old water wells that could have offered an easy disposal option. Dear climbed down into some of these based on tips he received.
Unfortunately, it did not take long before Dear and Loe were stepping on each other’s toes. Loe found Dear haughty. Dear felt that the police were inhibiting his investigation. Whatever the case, Dear had his own allies on the scene, in particular Bill Clinton’s cousin Sammy Tatom, who was later named director of the state Crime Commission.
Relying partly on the police’s composite sketch, Dear’s investigation came to focus on a man named Michael G. Morse. A resident of an adjacent county, he had killed himself a few months after Bobo disappeared. Morse’s employer told Dear that Morse had taken the day she disappeared off to visit someone about real estate. And the carpenter who’d been working on the house across the street from Bobo’s identified a photo of Morse as the man he’d seen with Bobo that day. Information from yet another source indicated that Morse had buried Bobo’s body atop Morse’s own father’s coffin in the Western Cemetery. That source was a psychic, Dear said.
Since he could hardly question Morse directly, Dear decided to exhume the father’s grave to see if Bobo’s body was there. On Nov. 20, 1979, cars carrying Loe and a handful of interested parties wound through the woods south of Magnolia, pulling in at the Missionary Baptist Church. Beside the red-brick and white plank building, an arched gate led into the sloping expanse of the Western Cemetery. The day was humid and a breath of wind filtered through the pines as the parties gathered around the grave site. They watched anxiously as the dirt over Morse’s father’s coffin was upended. Reaching the coffin itself, it became clear there was no extra body to be found. Disappointed, Dear looked up from the grave to see another unsettling sight: The other officials present were quietly hurrying off to their cars, leaving the scene, leaving Dear standing alone.
A lawsuit was filed before Christmas. Despite consenting to the exhumation, Michael Morse’s family sued for emotional duress and invasion of privacy. The $2 million suit alleged that in proclaiming Michael Morse a suspect, Dear (and initially, Sammy Tatom) had “engaged in extreme and outrageous conduct … from information received by them from a so-called psychic and through other similarly bizarre sources.” Dear later revealed that the tip that led him to exhume the grave had not come from a psychic, after all. That had been a ruse to protect the identity of the actual informant, whom Dear said had overheard Morse talking to his psychiatrist. When the case went to trial, the jury found for Dear, and he returned to Texas no longer involved in the Bobo Shinn case, at least officially.
MT. CALM, TEXAS is much smaller than Magnolia, its population just a touch over 300. Most of the streets are made of dirt with a whitish cast. A vapory dust rises like smoke as cars pass by. On the main drag—a paved state highway—sits Dear’s office, a former bank building restored with an Old West theme. A hanging gallows stands outside not far from where a windmill creaks as it spins in the breeze.
Dear cuts an imposing figure for his 78 years. Standing well north of six feet, he wore a cast on one wrist the day I met him, noting an accident at his nearby ranch. Despite no longer having any official capacity in the Shinn case, he maintains an open file. And it just so happened, he said, that there was new information: He’d recently received a phone call from someone who had details to share about the case.
The informant wished to remain confidential. The target of his allegations was still alive. The informant suspected this person was involved in Bobo’s disappearance, based on things he’d seen and heard, and he believed Bobo’s body might be found somewhere on a certain piece of land outside town.
Dear met the informant, had him polygraphed and hypnotized. The story held up. True or not, the informant seemed to believe what he said. Dear made an effort to contact Sheriff Loe. But old feuds die hard, and Dear said his effort was met with a terse email from the county prosecutor to the effect that any new information should be directed to him (the prosecutor). Fearing that route might be a black hole, Dear decided to conduct a search of the land himself, on his own dime, and perhaps confront the new suspect once his busy schedule allowed and he could procure the proper permissions. As of this writing, he is still working on it.
IT HAS BEEN 37 YEARS since Bobo Shinn vanished and more than a year since the memorial service aimed at giving her family and friends some closure. The closure, of course, is incomplete, as it always is with an unsolved crime.
Sheriff Loe continues with his reboot of the case, and Dear with his new informant. For them, the time warp the disappearance created continues, with its seemingly endless wheel of leads, theories and new ground to explore. Like the movie Groundhog Day, that July day in 1978 pops up over and over again in the present. But hope lives in the time warp as well. Cold cases have been solved before.
Though it remembers Bobo, Magnolia itself moves on. The supermarket where her car was abandoned is now an auto parts store. The E-Z Mart on Main where she might have picked up her real estate prospect is now a barber shop, though the original sign still stands along the street. The letters have been removed, but their outline remains visible like a ghost, a mysterious piece of the past still with us today.
Anyone with information on the Bobo Shinn disappearance is urged to please notify the Columbia County Sheriff’s Office at (870) 234-5331 or firstname.lastname@example.org.