PELL CITY – In an emotional courtroom setting Wednesday, Kelley Louise Howard was declared legally deceased. Several members of her family, including her husband, her son and her parents, were inside the courtroom when St. Clair County Probate Judge Mike Bowling made the official statement.
Howard was the dental hygienist at Family Dental Care in Riverside who went missing on Tuesday, June 2, 2009, and hasn’t been seen or heard from since.
Jonathan Brogdon, a lawyer with Church, Harmon, Brogdon and Williams, filed the petition on behalf of Howard’s husband, Boyd Howard.
“There is a statute in Alabama concerning people who are missing,” Brogdon said. “That statute requires the person to be declared missing for five years before they can be declared legally deceased. We filed this shortly after that five-year period, and got this hearing today.”
Boyd Howard was called to the witness stand first. He talked about the last time he saw and talked to his wife.
“I work third shift,” Howard said. “I came in and she was getting ready for work. I took some of the stuff she needed for work to the car for her.”
At that point, he started crying.
“I was working two jobs,” Howard said. “I went to bed around 12 p.m., and then got up to go to my second job. I tried calling on her cell phone and could never get her to answer. That was not like her to not answer her phone. I went to her workplace and saw her car, but the office was closed.”
Howard said the first person he called was his mother, and then the police got involved.
Five years later, Howard said he has not heard anything from his wife.
When Brogdon asked Howard if he thought his wife was still alive, Howard said no.
“I don’t think she is alive because she would have made contact with her son,” Howard said.
Attorney Matt Gossett cross-examined Howard. He wanted to know if his wife could have taken a trip anywhere or had friends outside the country.
“No sir,” Howard said. “Her friends were my friends. I knew her friends. She had no reason to go anywhere.”
The next person called to the witness stand was Riverside Police Chief Rick Oliver.
Oliver stated that it was two days later, on June 4, 2009, that Boyd Howard and Kelley’s father, Larry Henderson, filed an incident report and a missing persons investigation started immediately.
Oliver said he found Kelley Howard’s car keys on June 6, 2009, in some kudzu next to the dental office.
“There have been numerous searches by many different agencies on land and water,” Oliver said. “We checked cell phone records, bank accounts and credit cards. No activity at all.”
Oliver said he had known Kelley personally for a couple of years.
“She was my dental hygienist,” Oliver said. “She was a real people person. She could talk to anybody.”
Oliver then made a statement he found very hard to say in front of Kelley Howard’s family, and he fought back tears when he said it.
“In my personal and professional opinion, I do not believe she is alive,” Oliver said.
The final person called to the witness stand was Kelley’s only child, Shaun Derusha.
Derusha told the court how he was living in Panama City, Fla., at the time his mother went missing.
“She came down for a visit on Memorial Day weekend,” Derusha said. “She was excited about having a grandchild and she went shopping and bought things for the baby. We enjoyed the rest of the weekend, and then she left. I talked to her on Sunday night, and she let me know she made it home OK. We talked again Monday, and that was the last time I heard from her.”
Derusha broke down and cried in the witness chair. He then described how he received a telephone call from one of his mother’s friends.
“She was telling me no one could get in touch with her,” Derusha said. “I then started calling her. I called her work, her cell, and then I started calling everyone. I then packed my bags and came up here.”
Derusha said he knew all of his mother’s friends, and none of them had heard from her. There have been no letters, emails or any other type of communication since from Kelley Howard, who was 41 at the time she disappeared.
When Brogdon asked Derusha if he thought his mother was alive or dead, Derusha said, “I know she’s gone.”
Gossett then said he had no evidence to show Kelley Howard was still either alive or dead.
“My opinion is that she is probably not alive,” Gossett said.
“I can’t imagine what the family has gone through, or what you’re still going through,” Bowling said. “My thoughts and prayers go out to all of you. Hopefully one day, we can put closure on it. I hereby declare Kelley Louise Howard deceased.”
Her family hugged and cried following Bowling’s ruling, then left the courtroom silently.
Contact Gary Hanner at firstname.lastname@example.org.