Missing on the job
Her truck’s door hung open and a hard hat lay in the dirt, but the BPA worker was gone
Julie Weflen’s disarming smile beamed from dozens of billboards in four states, from hundreds of thousands of posters and in national media after she went missing 20 years ago this month.
Those who knew the Deer Park woman, whose smile embodied a gentle spirit, have moved on.
Her mother died in Portland last year, never knowing what became of her daughter, who was 28 at the time of her disappearance.
Weflen’s husband, Mike, who had pushed to keep attention on the case, eventually accepted that Julie wasn’t going to return. He remarried and became a father.
“There comes a time when you have to move on or give up on life,” he said recently.
Investigators on the case have come and gone, some retired, others reassigned. They have few leads in the case they now call a homicide: no body, no murder weapon and no known motive.
“She didn’t just run away,” said Spokane sheriff’s Detective Doug Marske, one of three primary investigators who have worked on the Weflen case.
Some of her Bonneville Power Administration colleagues have retired, too, although they still become emotional when the subject turns to the slight, soft-spoken woman who loved horses.
No one has forgotten.
“I pray for her every day,” said Julie’s mother-in-law, Phyllis Weflen, from her South Dakota home.
Julie Weflen was one of three regional women who went missing during an 18-month period in the mid-1980s and whose disappearances are unsolved. Coeur d’Alene teacher Debbie Swanson, 31, was last seen at Tubbs Hill on March 29, 1986. Sally Anne Stone, a 21-year-old exotic dancer from Coeur d’Alene, vanished on May 16 that year. Weflen went missing northwest of Spokane on Sept. 16, 1987.
But it was Weflen who received national attention, thanks largely to her husband’s efforts.
Marske still receives a couple of tips a week. He and other sheriff’s detectives have followed countless leads over the years, interviewed numerous potential suspects and searched extensively.
One man who was considered a “person of interest” in Weflen’s and Swanson’s disappearances was cleared.
Earlier this month, Marske received a strong tip on a different man linked to the Weflen case. The man, whom Marske would not identify except to say he’s deceased, was previously a “person of interest” and interviewed before his death. He took a polygraph and failed.
Jim Hansen, who was the primary detective on Weflen’s case for the first month, retired from the Sheriff’s Office in 1996. He now works in the Washington attorney general’s office with a unit that tracks homicides. The unit, called the Homicide Investigation Tracking System, reviewed the Weflen case a few years ago with sheriff’s detectives and submitted evidence in 2003 to the Washington State Patrol Crime Lab for DNA analysis.
The results of that analysis, or even what was tested, have not been made public.
Signs of struggle
As an operator for the BPA, Weflen’s duties included energizing and de-energizing power equipment, reading meters and keeping transformers powered up.
On the day she disappeared, she was working with Owen Berio, a former BPA electrician who has since retired.
“It was late in the afternoon, and there was a report that nitrogen was low in one of the transformers at the substation,” Berio said recently.
He told Weflen she could let it go for the day, but she told him she had time.
“And last I saw of her, she was walking down the corridor to get in her truck to go to Springhill.”
Weflen disappeared about 3:30 p.m. from the substation near where Four Mound and Coulee Hite roads meet, northwest of Spokane.
Her hard hat and toolbox, a water bottle and a pair of sunglasses lay on the ground next to the truck. Her purse was still in the work rig. The truck’s driver-side door and back hatch were open.
Randy Ridenhour, who was BPA’s liaison for law enforcement, said police told him at the time it appeared Weflen had been overpowered by two people.
Gravel showed signs of a struggle, including what appeared to be drag marks. A fresh tire pattern, not belonging to Weflen’s vehicle, was found near the substation.
“Her van was parked in the lot, and there were fairly large pieces of rock stirred up,” Hansen said.
Mike Weflen was in Ritzville for his house-painting job. He later told crime novelist Ann Rule that he returned to his motel room to find a note on the door: “Call BPA. Your wife has been kidnapped.”
Spreading the word
Julie Weflen went missing on a Wednesday. On Thursday, police stopped traffic on Four Mound Road, looking for people who passed that spot every day at the same time.
“One of them was an Avista crew, and they remembered seeing her working in the yard there the previous day,” Hansen said, which narrowed the time frame of Weflen’s disappearance.
In two days, sheriff’s deputies searched 225 square miles by airplane, car and foot. When their search ended, Mike Weflen’s continued. He was joined by family, friends and BPA coworkers – Berio included.
“We searched most of the week, but we finally had to go back to work. We kept looking for her on the weekends,” Berio said. “The necessary stuff was getting done (at work), but we were focused on looking for Julie.”
The family hired a New York psychic who led them to animal bones.
More than 200,000 of those fliers bearing Weflen’s picture graced store windows, power poles and lampposts in cities and along major highways in the Northwest and southern Canada. Hundreds of buttons were made with the same message.
About 80 billboards along major thoroughfares in Oregon, Washington, Montana and Idaho – mostly donated space – featured Weflen’s face. Her story was featured on “Good Morning America” and a national news show called “West 57th Street.” Good Housekeeping magazine ran an article in February 1989.
Rule, who has written about 1,400 criminal cases over the years, came to Spokane when she learned about the case, she said this week.
“Two years later, I sat in the living room she would have sat in and saw the cookie dough (in the freezer) she had made right before she disappeared,” Rule said from her Seattle home. “Her house was decorated so beautifully in pink, blue, white and mint green. I just thought she’d walk in at any moment.”
Rule included a chapter about Weflen in her 2004 book, “Kiss Me, Kill Me.”
“I don’t do many unsolved cases, but frankly I chose this one because I thought it would flush the killer out,” Rule said.
Since her book was published, Rule said, she usually gets at least one e-mail per day asking if Weflen has been found.
Mike and Julie Weflen met at a jazz concert in her home state of Oregon in 1980. They married in June 1983 and settled in Deer Park, where they kept palomino horses.
After his wife disappeared, Mike Weflen didn’t go home for three weeks.
“Without her there, it’s impossible for me to stay,” he told a reporter in 1987. “I don’t know when I will be able to go back, but hopefully it will be with Julie.”
“She was modest, she had a very gentle voice, she never criticized anyone, and she blushed easily,” Berio said of Julie Weflen. “But she was strong and competent. She held a tough job, and there weren’t any exceptions because she was a woman.”
Except, maybe, in the behavior of some of the tough-talking men. “When she was around, they were perfect gentlemen,” Berio said.
Berio said he has hung onto the missing person fliers with the thought of posting them along Four Mound Road some September, “to maybe jog someone’s memory.”
Ridenhour still can’t talk about the case without getting emotional.
“It brings up hard memories for anybody that knew her,” he said.
Berio said rather than believe Weflen was taken, “I always like to fantasize that deep down she decided our society was a rat race, and she lives on some island and sees a beautiful sunset every night. But in reality, I think someone saw her alone in the substation.”
Though Mike Weflen has moved on, Julie’s disappearance remains a difficult topic for him. His new wife has helped him work through the tragedy.
“If I could do anything to resolve it, I would,” he said. “After 20 years, you come to the realization you are probably not going to know what happened in your lifetime.”
Jody Lawrence-Turner can be reached at (509) 459-5593 or firstname.lastname@example.org. Cold Case is an occasional series focusing on the Inland Northwest’s unsolved homicides and missing persons.