A decade has gone by since a woman who recently had relocated to Kokomo was last seen.
Ten years ago, on Nov. 11, 2009, Esther Westenbarger and her gold 2005 Cadillac CTS went missing, and neither has been found in the years following. Her family believes she was murdered, and they have struggled over the years to deal with her presumed death without having any answers, evidence, or police suspects.
“The hardest thing is going over and visiting with my 82-year-old mother and not knowing, just not knowing,” said William Pelfree, Westernbarger’s brother. “I mean, what do you do? The hardest part is just not knowing because we definitely know by now that she’s not alive.”
Westernbarger lived most of her life in Fostoria, Ohio. She attended Fostoria High School and worked for Findlay Industries, an automobile parts manufacturer, for nearly 20 years. According to Julie Wise, the Indiana State Director of the CUE Center for Missing Persons who has been working the case since around 2014, the company had just unloaded a lot of employees, and Westenbarger was one of them.
She accepted a buyout from her employer and decided to move to Kokomo to be closer to her mother and siblings.
“(Her employer) just paid out contracts on them. They gave them a lump sum of money. She ended up moving over there to Kokomo where she had a couple siblings, and her mother was there. I think she was just at loose ends, so she moved to Kokomo,” said Wise.
Westenbarger moved in with her mother initially, but Pelfree said there was some falling out with some of the younger siblings who got jealous of Westenbarger being there. So, Westenbarger, who was 51 at the time, decided to use some of the money from the buyout to get her own place.
She found a trailer on the north side of Kokomo, but Pelfree wanted her to reconsider the location.
“I totally disagreed with that. I was like, ‘Esther, not a good move.’ But it was affordable. It was something she could do to where she could be by herself, and she’d only been there about a month. She just got the trailer fixed up and moved in. She met some shady characters out there,” said Pelfree.
On the night Westenbarger went missing, she went out with some new friends to bar hop. She parked her Cadillac at Hoosier Bar and then went to Miller’s Tavern, which was about a quarter of a mile away. She was last seen leaving Miller’s Tavern on foot, presumably to get her car at Hoosier Bar. Neither she nor her car has been seen since.
Wise said Westenbarger was a drinker, and while she was described as independent, her judgment “probably wasn’t all that good” the night she went missing.
Ahead of her disappearance, Westenbarger had been planning a surprise birthday party for her mother who was turning 73 on Nov. 14. She paid to bring her sisters to town and had planned where they would go to have a girls’ weekend.
When Westenbarger couldn’t be reached ahead of the party, her family realized something was wrong.
“That’s what made us all realize, ‘Hey, something’s wrong’ because Esther would never ever not show up or not do this. And that was alarming. That made us realize something’s wrong,” Pelfree said.
The birthday party never happened. Instead, on Friday, Nov. 13, Westenbarger was reported missing. Her adult son, who was living 1,300 miles away in Florida, got on a plane to come help search for his mother. He and family members put up fliers, called radio and TV stations, and searched. No trace of Westenbarger was found.
Persons of interest
Though no persons of interest have been named in Westenbarger’s case, Pelfree said the men who she was with the night she disappeared were questioned.
“They’ve most definitely been questioned by the police, but they didn’t say anything. They didn’t have to. They didn’t have any evidence to hold them or say they were involved in anything,” he said. “So they had to release them because as soon as they started questioning, from my understanding, they lawyered up and got an attorney.
“ … I don’t want to say names because these people are innocent until proven guilty, and I don’t want to put anything out there that could come out and be liable against me or my family or anybody else. But them were the people that she was out with that night at the bar. Them are the people that she’d been drinking with. Them are the people she got into an argument with before she left, and them were the last people that seen her alive. I say that automatically thinking that she’s dead because she probably is, but they are the last people that talked to her before she came up missing. And we’ve never been able to get answers from those people.”
Another man also raised suspicion. He lived in Westenbarger’s trailer park and has been in and out of jail over the years on multiple drug charges, domestic violence charges, and a charge of adult confinement.
Still, the family said there’s no evidence tying anyone to Westenbarger’s disappearance.
Physical searches for Westenbarger were conducted in 2009, 2013, and in 2018, and there have been few leads. During last year’s search, which was headed up by the CUE Center for Missing Persons, Wise returned to Miller’s Tavern to drop off more missing persons fliers. While there, she said she ran into an older man who claimed to have information in the case.
“A guy in the parking lot said that [Westenbarger] had boasted that she had thousands of dollars in cash in her car, and his belief was that the people she was with ended up following her home and then taking her and the car. He suggested we go check a gravel pit off of I think it’s State Road 22,” Wise said.
Wise said the Howard County Sheriff’s Department went out to search the gravel pit but didn’t find any evidence of Westenbarger’s car. Multiple attempts to reach Detective Scott Waymire, the lead detective on the case, at the Howard County Sheriff’s Department were unsuccessful.
Wise said it's unusual for a car to go missing after so long, especially one that was as unique as Westenbarger's, which sported a personalized Ohio license plate that read "MSESTER"
"Usually the car is found. A body kind of goes back to the earth, but a vehicle, it takes a long time to go away," she said.
Dealing with the grief
Over the last decade, Pelfree has realized that his sister’s story isn’t entirely uncommon. Tens of thousands of people across the United States are considered missing. In Indiana as of Oct. 22, the Indiana State Police bulletin listed 1,090 missing persons open cases.
In 2016, Pelfree and the motorcycle club he belongs to, Milwaukee Iron, started the “Keeping Their Memory Alive Ride” to raise awareness not only to his sister’s disappearance but all of the other missing and unsolved cases.
The money raised goes to the CUE Center for Missing Persons and Indiana State Police Crime Stoppers. In the beginning, Pelfree said the ride had a lot of support, but it has waned in the last couple of years.
“I constantly tell people, ‘Wait until it affects your life. Wait until one of you family members comes up missing or gets killed, and it’s unsolved. Then you’ll think different about it, and that’s the biggest thing for me that I like to do, get people thinking outside the box and put themselves in the position of family members that are going through it because if they did they would get more involved,” he said.
Still, Pelfree holds out hope that one day someone will talk, as he’s certain someone in Kokomo knows what happened to his sister 10 years ago.
Wise said the family of Westenbarger just wishes for closure.
“Families with missing persons eventually all come to the same place in that they’re not even so concerned anymore with who did it. What they’re concerned with is finding their loved one, bringing their body home, having some kind of funeral, and knowing where they are,” Wise said.
Today, Westenbarger would be 61 years old. Information regarding Westenbarger’s case can be reported to the Howard County Sheriff’s Department Criminal Investigations Section at 765-456-2031.