Knight with pix
Disappearance of Rose Eaton
Hed: Still Looking: The Disappearance of Rose Eaton
Kick: “Cold Case Squad Uses New Technology to Solve Old Mysteries”
Still looking: Retired detective Bob Gebo studies the file on Rose Eaton, a Chimacum woman who went missing in the summer of 1994. Photo by Terrence Knight
Still waiting: Rick Eaton at his Irondale cabin, with canine companion Colby and feline friend Loretta. Photo by Terrence Knight
Still missing: The original missing person poster posted by the Jefferson County Sheriff
By Terrence Knight for the Leader
Awarded 2nd Place, Crime Reporting, Washington Newspaper Publishing Association
On a moderately cool Monday morning in 1994, a 33-year-old woodcutter named Rick Eaton loaded his mother into his aged Toyota coupe – he intended to drive her to see a Port Angeles dentist – when he discovered that a trio of Nubian goats had slipped their tethers and were roaming around in the driveway.
It was July 24 and the sun was bathing Eaton’s 5-acre spread, about a mile south of Chimacum, in midsummer light – a fair and unexceptional day. Determined to return his sportive, hollow-horned stock to the barn, he turned off the ignition, got out, seized their leashes, and led them off, leaving his 73-year-old mother Rose, and a German shepherd named Angel, in the car. Rose Eaton glanced towards the dense thicket of alder and maple that ringed the yard – peering, perhaps, into the brake of a life growing ever darker.
Rick heard her mutter, “These old woods . . .”
These were the last words she said to him. And it was the last time he saw her.
“I was gone about ten minutes,” Rick says.
It was ten minutes sufficient to change everything: when he returned to the car, his mother was nowhere to be seen. Rick called out; hearing no response, he and Angel probed the woods. Finding no trace, he inspected the car and noted that his mother had not left her purse on the seat. Supposing she had decided to take a stroll, he drove a few hundred feet up to Beaver Valley Road.
Rick Eaton returned to his home – the door to the kitchen was still locked – and called the Jefferson County Sheriff.
“She was a tough old gal,” said Detective Bob Gebo, flipping through the case file on Rose Eaton. It is one of several unsolved mysteries that he, along with four other retired investigators, is working as part of an exclusive cold case squad attached to the Jefferson County Sheriff’s office.
Tough indeed. Rose Eaton had been slowly deteriorating mentally for the past several years, but she was otherwise reasonably healthy, even strong. She had all her life been a resolute non-smoker and teetotaler, and was much admired by family and friends for her ability to hike long distances.
The call was received around 10am; Deputy Don Johnson arrived in only a few minutes.
“We’re going to make sure every rock is turned over,” he assured Rick.
But neither rocks nor woods revealed anything. A mere six hundred seconds of unredeemable time was all it took for Rose Eaton to have seemingly been swallowed by the universe. On the premise that the chance of finding her was better if not a moment were wasted, Johnson summoned Jefferson County Search and Rescue, which responded with more than three dozen volunteers, including a troupe of specially trained Explorer Scouts.
They scoured the area for two days.
“I was impressed by how thorough they were,” Rick says.
Having still found nothing, Johnson called in Northwest Bloodhounds, a volunteer search group headquartered in Battleground, Washington; a tracking dog, inspired by a sniff of a sweater, put his perceptive muzzle to the ground and led the searchers north about a third of a mile along a narrow dirt road until the dog abruptly lost the scent – the last vestige of Rose Eaton vanished at the junction of the road and Highway 19. There the trail became not merely cold, but frozen in time.
For two decades authorities have made no progress towards explaining the disappearance of Rose Eaton. But now there’s a glimmer of light at the end of the tunnel.
“Technology has caught up with us,” says Gebo, a determined character who operates on hope and surmise.
On a recent afternoon, he delivered a panel of “family reference samples”– DNA specimens extracted from Rose Eaton’s relatives, including Rick, another son, Michael, and most important, from a daughter, Janet.
“DNA passes down more easily through females,” Gebo explains.
The Bremerton lab will forward the samples to the National Missing Person’s Program (NPP) at the University of North Texas in Fort Worth, which maintains an immense database of coded information describing unidentified human remains.
Making a match would not answer every question – there would still be a score of lost years that could not easily be accounted for – but it would at least offer a measure of closure to Rick and the rest of the family.
They can take some comfort in the knowledge that the cold case squad has no reason to suspect that Rose Eaton was a victim of foul play; in fact, so long as her remains are not identified, it is not certain that she is dead, though if she has survived she would now be 93 years old.
Rose Eaton’s life had not lacked tragedy: when she lost her first husband to cancer when he was only in his 40s, she succumbed to a spell of depression from which she may have never fully recovered.
“She had a tendency to be nervous and bored,” Rick explains.
During World War II, Rose Eaton became a professional entertainer, singing and dancing in lounges and USO clubs across the country. After the war, she had a successful career as a beautician in Seattle. In 1983 she moved into a retirement home in Puyallup. She began to show the early signs of dementia four years before she disappeared.
“She was fine for a long time,” Rick says. “But then she began spitting and showing other signs of bizarre behavior.”
She went to live for awhile with her daughter, Janet, who had a home in Bremerton. But as she continued to age, she became moody and disoriented.
Rick took her to two care facilities, but she resisted; she wanted to remain with family.
A Department of Social and Health Services caseworker urged Rick to care for her, but his mother continued to deteriorate, and it was too much for him.
“I’m not qualified to do that,” he says. “But sometimes the heart is bigger than the brain.”
Even as the darkness of confusion continued to envelop her, Rose Eaton remained enthusiastic. She told Rick she wanted to escape to San Francisco. And sometimes she sang.
I’ll sail away, sail away . . .
Will you wait for me?
Gebo believes the best explanation for the disappearance of Rose Eaton is that while her son was rounding up the goats, she wandered up the road to the highway, where she encountered a passing motorist who gave her a lift – this would explain why the hounds so suddenly lost her scent at the junction. At some point she insisted on being let out, but no one can say where. She had virtually no money with her, and no one has ever come forth to report picking up an elderly and confused woman.
There is an addendum to this story that sometimes disquiets Rick Eaton: in 2005 his sister Janet, who had been deeply troubled by their mother’s disappearance, was shot to death during an argument – the DNA sample collected by Gebo from Janet Eaton was possible only because prosecutors had kept a vial of her blood. Rick has sometimes wondered if there might be a connection between his sister’s murder and his mother’s disappearance, though in recent years he’s come to discount that. Gebo says the cold case squad has never suspected a link.
In the meantime, a son and a detective are waiting to hear back from the records center. That could take weeks or even months. Rick has not given up hope. “I have faith,” he said, looking around his cramped cabin in Irondale’s lonely backwoods, strewn with bric-a-brac, a spinet, and a library equipped with Hemingway and Steinbeck.
“I’d say the chance that she’s still alive is around thirty percent,” he says.
But then Rick Eaton glances down at his hands.
“No, it’s probably less than that.”
it's hard to let you go, though I know that I must try
I feel like I've been cheated 'cos we never said goodbye
Sail away, sail away.
Will you wait for me?
Rick Eaton is still waiting.